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Tough Questions Surround Breast Cancer Prevention Drug

The drug tamoxifen, long used to treat breast cancer patients, can now be used as a prevention method for breast cancer, the government announced Thursday.

Tamoxifen helps women at very high risk of developing breast cancer to reduce their chances of developing a tumor. “For the right patient. . .this represents a very good option,” said Michael Friedman, Acting Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). “But it is not universally beneficial and shouldn’t be misused. The key here is to be an informed consumer.”

The FDA has cautioned patients and doctors from casually using or prescribing the drug because it often produces serious, dangerous side effects. Tamoxifen may double women’s risk of developing uterine cancer, triple the risk of forming potentially fatal blood clots, and increase their likelihood developing cataracts.

Experts also point out that there is no conclusive proof that tamoxifen prevents breast cancer. In fact, the drug affects only one specific type of tumor. Currently, the FDA believes it may just delay an inevitable tumor.

“It’s not a magic pill to be taken as you would an aspirin,” said Dr. Kathy Albain of Loyola University Medical School in Maywood, Illinois. It’s nothing you need to rush out tomorrow and do. You need to understand the ramifications.”

A National Cancer Institute study determined that a daily dosage of tamoxifen taken over a long period of time by high-risk women reduced their chances of developing breast cancer by 44 percent. “Women need to understand just because you take tamoxifen, you could still get breast cancer,” stressed Albain.

Tamoxifen’s effectiveness on women of color also needs to be studied further, given that NCI’s study of the drug included mostly white women.

Sources:

AP - October 30, 1998