Menopause can be a liberating experience.
In our youth-celebrated society, it can be gratifying to reach the point where you are not having to worry about feminine protection, birth control or cramps.
For some women however, menopausal symptoms can have a negative impact on the quality of life. Women who experience hot flashes or night sweats (hot flashes at night) might say that's the single most irritating part of menopause. Rest assured, if you ever experience it, you’ll know.
It starts out with a rapid heartbeat and a feeling of pressure in your head. Then a mild warmth to an intense heat spreads through your face and upper body, sometimes turning your skin into a red blotchy patchwork as beads of perspiration begin pooling on your forehead, cheeks and neck. Sometimes you can feel dizzy, faint, or fatigued. If severe, hot flashes can be unsettling, even disrupting.
If you are a hot flash warrior, there may be a silver lining. According to a recent study by researchers at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, women who have experienced hot flushes and other symptoms of menopause may have a 50 percent lower risk of developing the most common forms of breast cancer than postmenopausal women who have never had such symptoms.
The results of the first study to examine the relationship between menopausal symptoms and breast cancer risk are available online ahead of the February 2011 print issue of Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers and Prevention.
The protective effect appeared to increase along with the number and severity of menopausal symptoms, according to senior author Christopher I. Li, M.D., Ph.D., and a Hutchinson Center's Public Health Sciences Division breast cancer epidemiologist.
"In particular we found that women who experienced more intense hot flushes – the kind that woke them up at night – had a particularly low risk of breast cancer," Li said.
He and colleagues suspected a link between menopause misery and decreased breast cancer risk because hormones such as estrogen and progesterone play an important role in the development of most breast cancers, and reductions in these hormones caused by gradual cessation of ovarian function can impact the frequency and severity of menopausal symptoms.
"Since menopausal symptoms occur as hormone levels fluctuate and drop, we hypothesized that women who experienced symptoms such as hot flushes and night sweats – particularly frequent and severe symptoms – might have a lower risk of breast cancer due to decreased estrogen levels," he said.
Indeed, the researchers did find a 40 percent to 60 percent reduction in the risk of invasive ductal and invasive lobular carcinoma – the two most common types of breast cancer – among women who experienced hot flashes and other symptoms. The association between such symptoms and decreased cancer risk did not change even after the researchers accounted for other factors known to boost breast cancer risk, such as obesity and use of hormone replacement therapy.
Li said the findings still need to be confirmed, but the information from the study has the potential to move cancer researchers one step closer to fully understanding the causes of breast cancer and to improve approaches to preventing this disease.
Lynette Summerill is an award-winning writer who lives in Scottsdale, Arizona. In addition to writing about cancer-related issues for EmpowHER, she pens Nonsmoking Nation, a blog following global tobacco news and events.