Drugs, Perils and Trust

Oh great. Now I’ve got to worry about lung cancer.

Recently released findings on hormone replacement therapy now show it nearly doubles the risk of dying of lung cancer for those women who followed this regimen. Already we’ve learned that HRT is linked to increases in breast cancer, heart disease, stroke and who knows what else. It’s giving me a headache.

Hormone replacement therapy was, some 30 or more years ago, generally accepted as being the be-all and end-all for postmenopausal women. No hot flashes! Limitless energy! Avoid cancer! Resist heart disease! Live long and prosper! That was more or less the message. My good physician, now long dead of drug-related causes himself but a wise and decent man he was, enlisted the aid of his nurse, who was also a friend of mine, to convince me to begin HRT. Addictable to anything that comes down the pike and resistant to drug-taking in general, I protested. But they and the general public belief that these drugs (estrogen and progestin) were the answer to every woman’s prayers, convinced me. I took them daily for years, then once weekly, when the formulae were perfected.

I quit in 2006 for the best of reasons: breast cancer.

I am absolutely certain my doctor wanted only the best for me. But I’m still somehow a little comforted now by the knowledge that Kaiser does not let drug company representatives meet with its physicians. Most of us trust our doctors. Some people whom they trusted convinced a lot of doctors, 30+ years ago, that HRT was a wonderfully promising regimen. Oh, doctors also read reports and journal articles, and listened to presentations, and early studies did indicate that HRT was a wonderful thing. I presume even the drug makers sincerely felt — hoped, at least — they were doing good. They had wives and mothers, after all. (Most people in those workplaces at the time were male, I suspect.) But maybe, just maybe, a few more studies would have been in order.

Now we’ve got studies. And a lot of interesting new information thanks to the Women’s Health Initiative. It was the first ever major effort to look at the most common causes of death, disability and poor quality of life in postmenopausal women. WHI was launched in 1991 and covered 161,808 generally healthy women; without yours truly they’d have only had 161,807. In the effort to help the WHI folks collect data on cardiovascular disease, cancer and osteoporosis, we made regular visits to designated clinics for 5 years, giving blood, getting weighed, filling out forms, answering questions. For another 10 years we filled out annual reports (and I think some participants did more; I was purely a control-group person because I didn’t want to alter my HRT regimen and knew I hadn’t enough will power to stick to some rigorous, data-producing diet.) A lot of us died along the way, thus the data. I remain a participant in a follow-up study that runs until 2010.

I await with interest the next release of findings. Some of the questions are along the lines of ‘On a scale of 1 to 10, how happy are you?’ so somebody’s watching for quality of life connections to things like exercise and marital status. And drugs. I know there are great things being done with drugs, but this profit margin business combined with what we keep finding out does give me pause. (I loved the survey question that asked whether, when I entered a room, I thought people were talking about me. There’s a story here.)

But whatever they’re finding out, it’s carefully done, covers a long period and a relatively huge bunch of women, and bless their hearts. Meanwhile, if you’re on HRT, you might want to talk to your doctor. What we didn’t know proved it could hurt us.