Effects of menopausal hormonal therapy on occult breast tumors

Richard J. Santen, Yan Song, Wei Yue, Ji Ping Wang, Daniel F. Heitjan

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

22 Scopus citations


An estimated 7% of 40-80 year old women dying of unrelated causes harbor occult breast tumors at autopsy. These lesions are too small to be detected by mammography, a method which requires tumors to be approximately 1 cm in diameter to be diagnosed. Tumor growth rates, as assessed by "effective doubling times" on serial mammography range from 10 to >700 days with a median of approximately 200 days. We previously reported two models, based on iterative analysis of these parameters, to describe the biologic behavior of undiagnosed, occult breast tumors. One of our models is biologically based and includes parameters of a 200 day effective doubling time, 7% prevalence of occult tumors in the 40-80 aged female population and a detection threshold of 1.16 cm and the other involves computer based projections based on age related breast cancer incidence. Our models facilitate interpretation of the Women's Health Initiative (WHI) and anti-estrogen prevention studies. The biologically based model suggests that menopausal hormone therapy with conjugated equine estrogens plus medroxyprogesterone acetate (MPA) in the WHI trial primarily promoted the growth of pre-existing, occult lesions and minimally initiated de novo tumors. The paradoxical reduction of breast cancer incidence in women receiving estrogen alone is consistent with a model that this hormone causes apoptosis in women deprived of estrogen long term as a result of the cessation of estrogen production after the menopause. Understanding of the kinetics of occult tumors suggests that breast cancer "prevention" with anti-estrogens or aromatase inhibitors represents early treatment rather than a reduction in de novo tumor formation. Our in vivo data suggest that the combination of a SERM, bazedoxifene (BZA), with conjugated equine estrogen (CEE) acts to block maturation of the mammary gland in oophorectomized, immature mice. This hormonal combination is defined by the generic term, tissue selective estrogen complex or TSEC. Xenograft studies with the BZA/CEE combination show that it blocks the growth of occult, hormone dependent tumors in nude mice. These pre-clinical data suggest that the BZA/CEE TSEC combination may prevent the growth of occult breast tumors in women. Based on the beneficial effects of this TSEC combination on symptoms and fracture prevention in menopausal women, the combination of BZA/CEE might be used as a means both to treat menopausal symptoms and to prevent breast cancer. This article is part of a Special Issue entitled 'CSR 2013'.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)150-156
Number of pages7
JournalJournal of Steroid Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
StatePublished - 2013


  • Computer simulated tumor growth model
  • Estrogens
  • Occult breast cancer
  • Progestogen
  • Tissue selective estrogen complex (TSEC)
  • Tumor doubling time

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism
  • Biochemistry
  • Molecular Medicine
  • Molecular Biology
  • Endocrinology
  • Clinical Biochemistry
  • Cell Biology


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