Breast cancer and hormone replacement therapy: Putting the risk into perspective

C. Campagnoli, C. Abbà, S. Ambroggio, N. Biglia, R. Ponzone

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Data on hormone replacement therapy and breast cancer risk come from a number of observational studies (mostly American studies). Those published up to 1995 were reanalyzed by the Collaborative Group on Hormonal Factors in Breast Cancer (CGHFBC). They involved populations where exceedingly high estrogen doses were used as first-line therapy, and a progestin was added in a minority of women. Overall, the CGHFBC reanalysis found that the relative risk increased by 0.023 for each year of use (with an absolute excess risk of two or six cases out of 1000 women treated for 5 or 10 years, respectively). Further American studies, published in 2000 and involving populations where lower doses were used, showed a risk increase of 0.01 per year of estrogen-only use. Both the CGHFBC reanalysis and the further studies did not find an increase of risk in treated overweight women. Possibly, overweight women already have a maximal estrogenic stimulus on the breast due to extraglandular estrogen production. An additional explanation could be that oral estrogens, through their hepatocellular effects, reverse some biological features of obesity (e.g. decreased sex hormone binding globulin level and increased insulin-like growth factor-I bioactivity) that potentially increase breast cancer risk, so balancing the estrogen stimulation. The CGHFBC reanalysis did not show a substantial difference in breast cancer risk between the majority using estrogen alone and the small minority using estrogen plus progestin. Conversely, Swedish studies and the recent American studies suggest that the risk increase could be higher with the addition of a progestin, compared with estrogen-only use. The biological effect of progesterone/progestins on the breast tissue is controversial. Even if the observed increase in risk could be partially ascribed to non-progesterone-like effects of some progestins (e.g. opposing the hepatocellular effects of oral estrogens) and also (in the American studies) to use-bias, a detrimental action due to progesterone-like effects cannot be excluded. However, the theoretical possibility exists that low doses of oral estrogens, plus a progestin providing progesterone-like effects only, will be shown to be associated with a limited breast cancer risk increase.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)53-60
Number of pages8
JournalGynecological Endocrinology
Issue numberSUPPL. 6
Publication statusPublished - 2001


  • Body weight
  • Breast cancer
  • Estrogen replacement therapy
  • Hormone peplacement therapy
  • Insulin-like growth factor-I
  • Progestins
  • Sex hormone binding globulin

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Endocrinology
  • Obstetrics and Gynaecology


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