Women More Likely to Die From Cause Other Than Breast Cancer

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A large study offers some excellent news. Older women with hormone-receptor-positive early breast cancer who had surgery (and possibly radiation and chemotherapy) and then took tamoxifen for 5 years were more likely to die from something OTHER THAN breast cancer (heart disease, for example). The women were followed for about 4 years after they stopped taking tamoxifen.

About 70% of the women in the study who were older than 70 died because of a reason other than breast cancer. Of the younger women in the study who died, about 52% died from breast cancer.

In postmenopausal women diagnosed with hormone-receptor-positive early breast cancer, hormonal therapy, such as tamoxifen, is given after surgery and any other initial treatments (radiation therapy, chemotherapy) to lower the risk of the cancer coming back (recurrence). When this study started, tamoxifen was the hormonal therapy of choice. Today, aromatase inhibitors, which lower the risk of the cancer coming back more effectively than tamoxifen, are the hormonal therapy standard. Arimidex (chemical name: anastrozole), Aromasin (chemical name: exemestane), and Femara (chemical name: letrozole) are all aromatase inhibitors.

This research was part of a study looking at whether Femara can further reduce the risk of breast cancer coming back when taken for 5 years AFTER 5 years of tamoxifen. Taking hormonal therapy medicine for more than the usual 5 years is called extended adjuvant treatment. While not discussed in this story, the research found that extended adjuvant hormonal therapy offered some benefits.

This study reinforces two important points:

  • All of the women in this study completed a full 5 years of hormonal therapy, which probably contributed to the positive findings. If you're postmenopausal and have been diagnosed with hormone-receptor-positive early breast cancer, you'll probably be prescribed hormonal therapy medicine after surgery and other initial treatments. It's extremely important that you take the hormonal therapy medicine for as long as it's prescribed. If cost, side effects, or other factors are getting in the way of you taking your hormonal therapy medicine, talk to your doctor about your concerns and your options.
  • The women in this study were all diagnosed with EARLY breast cancer. Their risk of dying of breast cancer would have been much higher if their breast cancer was diagnosed at a more advanced stage. Mammograms, along with regular breast self-exam and annual breast examinations by a healthcare professional are the best ways to diagnose breast cancer early, when it's most treatable.

Visit the breastcancer.org Staying on Track with Hormonal Therapy page to learn more about ways to make sure you stick with your treatment for the prescribed time.

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