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Breast Cancer News Cause for Joy and Anger

By       Message Linda Seligson     Permalink
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Am I missing something?

Doctors are slapping themselves silly congratulating one another over the recent news of a sharp drop in breast cancer rates. The New York Times editorial page proclaims the recent figures "astonishingly good news."

However, I find the news less than astonishing. And while I greet the drop with joy, this emotion is mixed with anger because of the reason behind it.
Researchers say the incidence of breast cancer is declining because women are rejecting the hormone therapy now blamed for causing so many breast cancers. Hormone therapy often highly recommended by their own trusted physicians.

Surely, a reduction in this hideous disease is cause for celebration. At its peak in 1998, more than 200,000 American women were diagnosed with breast cancer, including far too many of my dearest friends. Most survived the ravages of the disease and its gruesome treatment. Yet, like most Baby Boomers, I personally mourn more than a few of the 40,000 women who annually lost their breast cancer fight.

If only they had known the truth. How many of them, I wonder, would have risked their health and their lives just to avoid a few hot flashes? Of course, physicians also warned that, without hormone therapy, these women risked heart disease, Alzheimer's, depression, urinary incontinence and variety of other frightening illnesses.

But it turns out that just the opposite was true. Hormone therapy, we have learned actually caused an increase in heart attacks not to mention strokes, blood clots and, yes, breast cancer, too.

My mother obediently gulped hormones well into her 80s. Although she began to bleed shortly after starting the treatment, her doctor continued to prescribe it. And she continued to swallow the pills even after undergoing painful exploratory surgery to find the cause of the bleeding a procedure that almost cost this fragile woman her life. Once the hormone "therapy" stopped, against her prescribing doctor's advice, the bleeding did, too. It was, he said, a coincidence.

Once upon a time, long before I broke my first mid-life sweat, my ob-gyn had urged me to take these same "miracle" hormones. I demurred. Why should I treat symptoms I didn't even have? And ingesting the urine of pregnant horses (source of the much vaunted hormones) seemed more than a little repugnant to me.

"Read about them," the doctor urged, placing colorful literature with pictures of smiling hormone-happy women in my hands. "This will convince you," he said.

I turned the brochure over, saw that a pharmaceutical company was behind the beamingly biased promotion, and threw it in the trash. I wish more of my friends and their physicians -- had done the same.

Instead of slapping one another on the back for bringing down the rate of breast cancer, many doctors should be kicking themselves for contributing to its rise.

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Linda Weiner Seligson is an award-winning veteran journalist. A former newspaper reporter and editor, she now works as an independent freelance communicator while devoting much of her time to trying to repair the world.

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Breast Cancer News Cause for Joy and Anger