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Extended use of hormonal drugs can cut risk of breast cancer returning

Medical negligence solicitor Sophie Wells welcomes research findings about surviving breast cancer

Mother recovering from cancer with daughters
The recurrence of cancer can have intense physical and psychological consequences, a devastating realisation that the disease has returned.  However, recent developments from Harvard Medical School have given hope to thousands of women who have suffered from breast cancer.

In studies they have found that Cancer survivors are a third less likely to suffer a recurrence, and markedly less likely to develop cancer in their other breast, if they take hormonal drugs for 10 years rather than 5 years, the current standard.

The conclusions are based on a study of 1,918 post-menopausal patients who had suffered from early-stage oestrogen receptor positive breast cancer.

The patients had already received 4.5 to 6 years of treatment with an aromatase inhibitor (AI) and around two thirds of them had also previously received around 5 years of tamoxifen treatment.

Half of these patients were treated with an AI for a further 5 years while the others were treated with a placebo for the same period.

The results showed that cancer recurrence was 34% lower in the women who took the AI for a total of 10 years. At the end of the study 5.7% of patients who had taken the AI for 10 years had suffered a recurrence of cancer compared to 7.1% who had taken the AI for 5 years followed by the placebo.

5 year disease-free survival was 95% in the group which had received 10 years of the AI compared to 91% in the placebo group. Rates of cancer returning in the other breast were also markedly reduced.

However, the study did not show a difference in overall survival between the two groups. There are also various reported side-effects caused by extended use of AIs including increased nausea, hot flushes, low libido and increased risk of osteoporosis and bone fractures.

These side-effects prompted Dr Harold Burstein of the Dana Farber Cancer Institute and the American Society of Clinical Oncology to comment that for “lower-risk patients, the benefits [of extended use of AIs] are narrow enough that they may opt against” taking it for more than 5 years.

1.7 million women are diagnosed with breast cancer around the world each year and around 80% of the tumours are fuelled by oestrogen.

In the UK over 40,000 women are diagnosed with oestrogen receptor positive breast cancer each year.

The findings of this study may be of real benefit to thousands of these women, particularly as incidences of this type of cancer, already one of the most common, are rising in an increasing population of post-menopausal women (like those involved in this study).

It is vitally important that studies like this are not only done but also that they are reported in the mainstream media as it means patients are better able to discuss their treatment options with their doctors and to make informed choices about their treatment.

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