The Million Women study

This is a national study of women’s health involving 1.3m women over 50 in the UK. It investigates how lifestyle and reproductive factors influence our health, and whether certain factors make someone susceptible to disease. It’s an ambitious study and bound to be influential in terms of health policies because it spans such a large number of women.

The basic aim is to ascertain whether HRT increases the risk of breast cancer, and whether the type and aggressiveness of breast cancer is influenced by the use of it. The study also examines other factors such as diet, lifestyle, childbirth, breastfeeding, and the use of supplements.

Who’s behind it?

It was started by Professor Valerie Beral, head of the Cancer Epidemiology Unit at Oxford University and is now being funded by Cancer Research UK, the NHS Breast Screening Programme, and the Medical Research Council.

Any findings to date?

So far, results show the effect of HRT on three common female cancers: Breast, Ovarian and Endometrial:

1. Women using combined (oestrogen-progestagen) HRT increase their risk of breast cancer. Oestrogen-only HRT isn’t as high risk. Use of HRT by women aged 50-64 over a 10-year period led to an estimated 20,000 extra breast cancers.
2. Post-menopausal women taking oestrogen-only HRT are at increased risk of endometrial cancer.
3. Both types of HRT increase the risk of ovarian cancer.
4. Daily drinking of alcohol (even small amounts) increases the risk of breast, liver and rectal cancer.
5. Smoking is the biggest cause of cancer. Dietary factors such as obesity are also responsible in a third of cases.

Obviously, women need to speak to their GP to weigh up the pros and cons of using HRT for their circumstances. Medical advice is to take it for a short period only, to help relieve common menopausal symptoms.

There is a positive finding though so it’s not all doom and gloom. Researchers found no evidence that links your past lifestyle and habits with current illnesses such as cancer. Beral is quoted in The Guardian: ‘If you give up smoking, within five years your risk of lung cancer has halved. ‘It’s about what you are now. You can change it. The only exposure that I’m sure does persist is radiation. It mutates the DNA directly. But most of what we see seems to be reversible.’

Read the full report in The Guardian here.
Journal of the National Cancer Institute – research into the effects of drinking.
The study’s website has a newsletter for further updates as research progresses.

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