One of every eight women in the United States will develop invasive breast cancer over her lifetime. Eighty percent of those cancers are fueled in part by estrogens.
One treatment for women whose breast cancer is fueled by estrogen – or what is often called estrogen receptor (ER)-positive breast cancer – is for them to take drugs that block estrogens. But estrogens have benefits that should be considered.
This particularly affects postmenopausal women who have gone through the trauma of surgery for invasive breast cancer. They are typically faced with a very difficult decision. Should they take estrogen blockers or not? Is the treatment worth it, balancing the risk of recurrence of the cancer with potential quality-of-life issues?
When prescribing a particular drug for postmenopausal, ER-positive, breast cancer survivors, physicians often consider the effects of estrogen blockers on bone and the uterus.
However, they also need to consider the effects on other aspects of women’s health. Estrogens also have many positive effects on mental health, cognitive function, libido and protection of the brain, possibly even slowing the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
I am a neuroendocrinologist, and I have studied the effects of hormones, including estrogens, on the brain, behavior and mental health for over 40 years. Not only is the fact that “estrogen” is actually a class of hormones not well understood, but so are the many positive functions of estrogens. As with any health treatment, the potential negative effects should be weighed against the potential positive effects.