Monday marked the 10th anniversary of the release of the groundbreaking results of the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI). The WHI was pioneering in the scope and scale of independent research focused on women’s health; at the time it was the largest preventive women’s health study ever conducted in the United States, and, importantly, was independently funded – by the National Institutes of Health, not pharmaceutical companies.
At Breast Cancer Action we’ve long challenged the deep and pervasive influence the pharmaceutical industry has in the research, development, and marketing of drugs in this country. The WHI study serves as a cautionary tale of what can happen when pharma pushes drugs to women without adequate safety information about those drugs.
The WHI evaluated, among other things, the safety and effectiveness of hormone therapy (HT) for women at menopause and beyond. As our partners at the National Women’s Health Network describe, for decades pharmaceutical companies undertook aggressive marketing campaigns touting hormone therapy’s benefits, and paid handsomely for physicians’ loyalty to the drugs. Their work paid off. By the time the WHI results on hormone therapy were published in 2002, 38% of US women were on some type of hormone therapy drug.
The study’s results showed these drugs were causing serious health problems in otherwise healthy women, including increasing their risk of breast cancer, stroke, heart disease, and blood clots. The trial was halted early because it was clear estrogen plus progesterone therapy came with significant health risks for the women taking these drugs.
The WHI results changed how we understand the relationship between hormone therapy and breast cancer, answering important questions and raising many more. Most importantly, the study gave the millions of women on hormone therapy unbiased information about the benefits and risks of the drug. As a direct result of the study, many women today are no longer exposed to the harms of hormone therapy and the following drop in breast cancer incidence has been significant.
Our work at BCAction is premised on the belief that women deserve unbiased, comprehensive, scientifically based information about the risks and benefits of pharmaceutical drugs as well as factors that increase our risk of breast cancer. We have always advocated for that information to be available to women and the WHI study was groundbreaking in that regard. As the watchdog of the breast cancer movement, we push to shift the balance of power at the FDA toward patient interests, as well as go upstream and advocate for independent research.
It’s hard to overemphasize the importance of long-term independent studies like the Women’s Health Initiative. Studies like the WHI fundamentally differ from research conducted by pharmaceutical companies, which aims to get products to market instead of gathering long-term health data on large populations. Pharmaceutical companies are corporations, and corporations must answer to shareholders, and shareholders want to see products (drugs) that make profits.
Government funding for independent health research continues to dwindle, and with it the possibility of comprehensive, unbiased information. This is unacceptable and must change. We cannot have a world where pharma-funded research dominates and independent research languishes; we must have robust funding for the type of research that gives us the information we need about our health. The WHI has shown us how valuable independent funding is, how many lives it can save, how many women it can empower, and how desperately we need more funding for studies like this, which can answer questions about breast health and cancer prevention that go beyond what we have today.
We will continue to advocate for funding for independent research into breast cancer screening, treatment, and causes. We must invest in women’s health.