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Cheap tablets could cut breast cancer chances in high-risk women after menopause

Published 29/11/2016

A consultant analysing a mammogram
A consultant analysing a mammogram

Thousands of women with a family history of breast cancer could be offered a cheap drug to reduce their risk of getting the disease themselves.

A new draft guideline from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) says GPs should consider offering anastrozole to post-menopausal women who are deemed to have a "high" or "moderate" risk of breast cancer.

It is estimated that around one in 10 women over the age of 50 have a higher risk of getting the disease - some 600,000 around the UK.

The drug, which costs £1.19 for 28 tablets, has been shown to be "effective for the primary prevention of breast cancer", according to Nice's consultation document.

The health watchdog said the drug should be offered to women with an increased risk of breast cancer for five years unless they have severe osteoporosis.

Its draft guideline states that for women at high or moderate risk of the disease, anastrozole results in considerably fewer breast cancer cases and lower costs than the drugs tamoxifen and raloxifene.

Nice estimates that if 1,000 high-risk women took anastrozole for five years, 35 breast cancer cases would be prevented.

And for every 1,000 moderate-risk women who took the drug for five years, 27 cases could be prevented.

Nicola Smith, senior health information officer at Cancer Research UK, told the Daily Mail: "Taking a pill to reduce the risk of breast cancer is an encouraging new option for post-menopausal women at high risk of the disease.

"For most women, the side-effects of anastrozole are likely to be less severe than those experienced with tamoxifen which also reduces breast cancer risk.

"It's important for women to consult their doctor if they think they might be at high risk of breast cancer."

Professor Mark Baker, director of the centre for guidelines at Nice, told the newspaper: "The evidence examined by the committee suggests anastrozole will not only reduce the number of breast cancer cases in these women compared with tamoxifen, but it is also a more cost-effective option."

Baroness Delyth Morgan, chief executive at the charity Breast Cancer Now, said: "That the most effective preventive drug for post-menopausal women at high risk of breast cancer has now been recommended for routine use is fantastic news.

"Studies have shown anastrozole to cut the risk of the disease in post-menopausal women by more than 50% in the first five years, and, crucially, it has fewer side-effects than other preventive options such as tamoxifen and raloxifene.

"However - like tamoxifen - anastrozole is not licensed for this purpose, and we are concerned that patients will therefore not be able to access this treatment, despite this recommendation.

"This updated guideline is a great first step but we now need to ensure that these risk-reducing options actually make their way to patients that could benefit.

"Ultimately, if the full potential of anastrozole is to be realised for post-menopausal women, there needs to be far greater awareness and support for GPs in prescribing off-label treatments."

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