Side effects impair compliance with breast cancer drugs

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A surprising number of women are stopping their breast cancer treatments early, but it s not because they are fully cured. Instead, the side effects are too much for them to bear, reports a recent study presented this week at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium.

This study included almost 700 postmenopausal women who were taking one of three available drugs called aromatase inhibitors. These drugs are prescribed to postmenopausal women whose breast cancer is fueled by the hormone estrogen, since the aromatase inhibitors halt estrogen production and reduce the risk of cancer recurrence. It is recommended that women remain on this medication for five years. Yet in this study, 36 percent of breast cancer patients ceased taking their medication early, on average before 4.1 years. The main reason cited for stopping early was joint pain, but other side effects included hot flashes, lowered libido, weight gain, mood swings, irritability, and nausea.

As it is important for women to complete the full course of their treatments in order to prevent the cancer from recurring, ACSH's Dr. Gilbert Ross is concerned that so many women stop their treatments due to the side effects. Doctors will have to communicate better with their patients about these drugs and the side effects they can expect to experience, he says. There are ways to manage these side effects, as well as options for alternative treatment if the side effects become excessive. This open communication would help prevent women from just stopping altogether.

ACSH s Dr. Elizabeth Whelan adds, The development of the aromatase inhibitors has propelled breast cancer therapy, especially prevention of recurrence, nearer to actually curing these previously dangerous tumors. Doctors must do more to encourage their patients who have survived the intense initial treatments to stay the course and keep their chances of long-term survival as high as possible.