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Cancer drug tamoxifen is worth the risks and can be effective against a relapse
Discussing breast cancer last week, Jennifer Saunders revealed the hardest thing was taking a treatment that triggered sudden menopause that was like ‘jumping off a cliff’.
The drug, tamoxifen, is commonly prescribed to women who have tumours stimulated by the female sex hormone oestrogen. Recent trials even suggested it could be taken as a preventative measure.
There’s not enough evidence to warrant this but the medicine is fantastically effective against a relapse. I would hate any woman to be put off by Jennifer’s very honest declaration.
Revealing: Jennifer Saunders spoke frankly about taking the drug but Dr Cannon is concerned women will be put off by her account
Why would anyone take tamoxifen if the side effects are so dreadful
In some breast cancers, oestrogen can cause tumour cells to grow: tamoxifen blocks the activity of oestrogen in the breast tissue and stops growth of the cancer. It is standard treatment after breast cancer surgery. When a woman is diagnosed with the disease, she is tested to see if her tumour is ‘oestrogen positive’. If it is, she can take tamoxifen. It is a tablet taken every day for five years after the operation, which has been shown to significantly increase chances of survival in the ten years after surgery.
So what are the downsides
Minor side effects include nausea, diarrhoea and headaches. The more serious side effects come from tamoxifen blocking oestrogen in the body. In pre-menopausal women menopause-like symptoms – hot flushes, mood swings and depression – come on suddenly and dramatically instead of gradually. But fertility is not affected and symptoms go away when you stop taking the drug. As for Jennifer, at 53 she would probably have begun the menopause at this age anyway.
Side effects of the drug can include nausea, diarrhoea and headaches
Can it be taken to prevent breast cancer in high-risk women
Theoretically yes, but this has never been licensed. This is because the largest trial concluded that the potential benefits from taking tamoxifen simply for prevention did not outweigh known risk factors.
So there are more serious risks
Yes. When taking tamoxifen, the chances of womb cancer, though still low, are significantly increased. But this risk is outweighed by the increased survival rates for breast cancer.