Last updated: Jan 06, 2009
Taking estrogen may increase a woman's risk of getting breast cancer.
Getting relief from menopause symptoms doesnt need to mean estrogen-only treatments or combined hormone therapy (HT), which may increase your risk of breast cancer. If you can, consider nondrug remedies first, says JoAnn Manson, MD, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and the author of Hot Flashes, Hormones & Your Health.

Dr. Manson has several suggestions for managing hot flashes and night sweats:

  • Wear layered clothing.
  • Lower the thermostat.
  • Use portable fans.
  • Avoid dietary triggers such as caffeine, spicy foods, and alcohol.
  • Avoid tobacco.
  • Increase your intake of soy-based foods.
  • Consider trying the herb black cohosh.
A low dose of a selective serotonin-reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) or the antiseizure medication gabapentin may also be useful, according to Kala Visvanathan, MBBS, assistant professor of epidemiology and oncology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, in Baltimore.

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"If a woman has only vaginal dryness and discomfort with intercourse and no other symptoms, she can use a topical estrogen or a vaginal estrogen ring, which have a much lower absorption of estrogen," adds Dr. Manson, who notes that relaxation and breathing techniques have worked for some women as well. "I would encourage women to try lifestyle modifications before going with estrogen, especially if they have mild symptoms," she says.

Dr. Visvanathan agrees: "You definitely want to try simple things first, then go to [HT] if you need to. It used to be that hormones were the first thing you tried, but the paradigm is changing because weve determined the long-term breast cancer and cardiovascular risk associated with HT, and because the benefits of HT have been shown to be less effective than previously thought. Women with modest menopausal symptoms can often treat their symptoms effectively with nonmedical therapies."

If you end up needing estrogen or combination HT, though, and you want to keep your breast cancer risk low while still keeping menopause symptoms in check, ask your doctor about transdermal patches, gels, and sprays, which deliver low doses of estrogen through the skin and may have fewer risks than pills. "Transdermal estrogen may be less likely to cause blood clots and gallbladder disease," Dr. Manson explains. "And lower doses may be less likely to increase the risk of breast cancer or other cancers."

The bottom line: Consider alternative approaches to see if one or several together can control your menopause symptoms before turning to oral estrogen or combination HT.