Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) for women previously treated for endometrial cancer

The issue
Endometrial cancer develops from the lining of the womb (uterus). It is the sixth most common cancer worldwide and mainly affects women around the time of or after the menopause (the final menstrual period). At an early stage, where the cancer has not spread outside of the womb, survival rates are excellent with a five-year survival of up to 97%. Treatment of endometrial cancer normally involves surgery to remove the womb, fallopian tubes (that connect the uterus to the ovaries) and ovaries (which produce eggs) (hysterectomy and bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy). This may cause the onset of menopausal symptoms in women diagnosed prior to the menopause, or women may already be suffering from menopausal symptoms when they are diagnosed.

Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is used to treat menopausal symptoms such as hot flushes, night sweats and vaginal dryness. In younger menopausal women, HRT may also help to maintain bone strength and prevent osteoporosis (weak bones). However, the safety of HRT after endometrial cancer is not known. Some types of endometrial cancer cells may be stimulated to grow by oestrogen, which is the main hormone in some types of HRT. Therefore, HRT has the potential to increase the growth of endometrial cancer cells left behind after treatment (due to microscopic undetected spread outside of the womb, fallopian tubes and ovaries), so promoting tumour recurrence (regrowth). Some doctors may not prescribe HRT after a diagnosis of endometrial cancer due to this theoretical risk. However, most women treated for early-stage endometrial cancer will not have any residual cancer cells following surgery. Menopausal symptoms can severely affect quality of life and early menopause can affect long-term health. HRT could potentially improve quality of life and long-term health, and women treated for endometrial cancer need to be able to balance the risks and benefits of HRT to decide about their treatment.

The aim of the review
The aim of this systematic review was to determine the effectiveness (does it improve symptoms) and safety of HRT in women who have been treated for endometrial cancer. Safety of HRT in this situation included effects on survival and the specific risk of endometrial cancer regrowing.

What were the main findings?
We searched clinical trial databases to look for any evidence of effectiveness and safety of HRT use in women who had had endometrial cancer up to May 2017. We only found one study that randomly allocated women to receive either HRT or a placebo (pretend treatment). This found no difference in the likelihood of the cancer regrowth between the two groups. They showed that HRT may or may not increase the risk of recurrence of developing a new cancer. They did not provide any information on survival or symptom relief. However, the study was not completed due to poor recruitment into the clinical trial, so was not large enough to definitively say whether the use of HRT could be recommended after treatment for early endometrial cancer.

Quality of the evidence
We are uncertain whether HRT increases the risk of recurrence after a diagnosis of endometrial cancer, as the certainty of the current evidence was very low. We identified only one randomised trial and this trial did not include enough women to definitely answer the question. This trial also had areas of potential bias that reduced our certainty in the results.

What were the conclusions?
Limited, very-low certainty, evidence suggests that HRT may have little or no effect on the risk of endometrial cancer returning for women who have been treated surgically for an early-stage endometrial cancer. There were no data to say whether HRT had an effect on overall survival after hysterectomy for endometrial cancer.

Authors' conclusions: 

Currently, there is insufficient high-quality evidence to inform women considering HRT after treatment for endometrial cancer. The available evidence (both the single RCT and non-randomised evidence) does not suggest significant harm, if HRT is used after surgical treatment for early-stage endometrial cancer. There is no information available regarding use of HRT in higher-stage endometrial cancer (FIGO stage II and above). The use of HRT after endometrial cancer treatment should be individualised, taking account of the woman's symptoms and preferences, and the uncertainty of evidence for and against HRT use.

Read the full abstract...
Background: 

Endometrial cancer is the sixth most common cancer in women worldwide and most commonly occurs after the menopause (75%) (globocan.iarc.fr). About 319,000 new cases were diagnosed worldwide in 2012. Endometrial cancer is commonly considered as a potentially 'curable cancer,' as approximately 75% of cases are diagnosed before disease has spread outside the uterus (FIGO (International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics) stage I). The overall five-year survival for all stages is about 86%, and, if the cancer is confined to the uterus, the five-year survival rate may increase to 97%. The majority of women diagnosed with endometrial cancer have early-stage disease, leading to a good prognosis after hysterectomy and removal of the ovaries (oophorectomy), with or without radiotherapy. However, women may have early physiological and psychological postmenopausal changes, either pre-existing or as a result of oophorectomy, depending on age and menopausal status at the time of diagnosis. Lack of oestrogen can cause hot flushes, night sweats, genital tract atrophy and longer-term adverse effects, such as osteoporosis and cardiovascular disease. These changes may be temporarily managed by using oestrogens, in the form of hormone replacement therapy (HRT). However, there is a theoretical risk of promoting residual tumour cell growth and increasing cancer recurrence. Therefore, this is a potential survival disadvantage in a woman who has a potentially curable cancer. In premenopausal women with endometrial cancer, treatment induces early menopause and this may adversely affect overall survival. Additionally, most women with early-stage disease will be cured of their cancer, making longer-term quality of life (QoL) issues more pertinent. Following bilateral oophorectomy, premenopausal women may develop significant and debilitating menopausal symptoms, so there is a need for information about the risk and benefits of taking HRT, enabling women to make an informed decision, weighing the advantages and disadvantages of using HRT for their individual circumstances.

Objectives: 

To assess the risks and benefits of HRT (oestrogen alone or oestrogen with progestogen) for women previously treated for endometrial cancer.

Search strategy: 

We searched the Cochrane Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL 2017, Issue 5), MEDLINE (1946 to April, week 4, 2017) and Embase (1980 to 2017, week 18). We also searched registers of clinical trials, abstracts of scientific meetings and reference lists of review articles.

Selection criteria: 

We included randomised controlled trials (RCTs), in all languages, that examined the efficacy of symptom relief and the safety of using HRT in women treated for endometrial cancer, where safety in this situation was considered as not increasing the risk of recurrence of endometrial cancer above that of women not taking HRT.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two review authors independently assessed whether potentially relevant studies met the inclusion criteria. We used standard methodological procedures expected by Cochrane.

Main results: 

We identified 2190 unique records, evaluated the full text of seven studies and included one study with 1236 participants. This study reported tumour recurrence in 2.3% of women in the oestrogen arm versus 1.9% of women receiving placebo (risk ratio (RR) 1.17, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.54 to 2.50; very low-certainty evidence). The study reported one woman in the HRT arm (0.16%) and three women in the placebo arm (0.49%) who developed breast cancer (new malignancy) during follow-up (RR 0.80, 95% CI 0.32 to 2.01; 1236 participants, 1 study; very low-certainty evidence). The study did not report on symptom relief, overall survival or progression-free survival for HRT versus placebo. However, they did report the percentage of women alive with no evidence of disease (94.3% in the HRT group and 95.6% in the placebo group) and the percentage of women alive irrespective of disease progression (95.8% in the HRT group and 96.9% in the placebo group) at the end of the 36 months' follow-up. The study did not report time to recurrence and it was underpowered due to closing early. The authors closed it as a result of the publication of the Women's Health Initiative (WHI) study, which, at that time, suggested that risks of exogenous hormone therapy outweighed benefits and had an impact on study recruitment. No assessment of efficacy was reported.

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