Daughter supporting mother undergoing breast cancer therapy
Mental Health & Self-Care Print

Continuing Breast Cancer Therapy


You may have heard the sobering statistic that one in eight women will develop breast cancer over the course of an 80-year lifespan. That’s a lot of women, and a lot of breast cancer. Although the issues surrounding the disease and its recurrence seem to get more and more complex, researchers continue to look for ways to improve treatment outcomes.

One recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine on July 21, 2016, found that women who took certain medications for longer time periods had better survival rates.  Specifically, the study followed just over 1,900 women.

It found that breast cancer patients who took aromatase inhibitor medications for ten years had improved outcomes. Their disease-free survival rates went from 91 percent to 95 percent. This extended treatment also reduced the woman’s chance of developing cancer in her other breast.

So what are Aromatase Inhibitor Medications?

Most breast cancers need the female hormones estrogen and/or progesterone to grow. Following surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation treatments, doctors usually prescribe the drug tamoxifen and another drug called an aromatase inhibitor.  These drugs prevent female hormones reaching any remaining cancer cells. If the hormones don’t reach the cancer cells, the cancer cells can’t grow.

The research showed that women who had this type of early stage breast cancer had a lower risk of the cancer coming back when they took aromatase inhibitors for ten years instead of the usual five-year period. Most of the women in the study had previously taken tamoxifen.

Any side effects?

Women taking the aromatase inhibitor for the extended period experienced more bone pain, bone fractures and new cases of osteoporosis than those taking a placebo, but assessments of quality of life between the medication and placebo did not differ. There was no increase in the risk of heart problems, as some researchers had feared. 

In short, it seems that women need to talk with their clinicians about the risks and benefits of taking these medications. 

Prescribing doctors will take into account whether or not you have reached menopause (you cannot take aromatase inhibitors if you are premenopause because your ovaries continue to make estrogen). They will also take the results of genetic analysis and whether the tumor cells respond to estrogen and/or progesterone into account. 

The good news - your treatment will be tailored specifically to your tumor, and this will give treatment the best chance for success.