Breast cancer drug could prevent the disease in high-risk women

In collaboration with the Press Association

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

New draft guidelines from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) say GPs should consider offering anastrozole to post-menopausal women at “high” or “moderate” risk of breast cancer.

“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” – Nicola Smith, Cancer Research UK

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 the new guidelines.

NICE estimates that if 1,000 high-risk women took anastrozole for 5 years, 35 breast cancer cases would be prevented. And for every 1,000 moderate-risk women who took the drug for 5 years, 27 cases could be prevented. 

NICE said the drug should be offered to women with an increased risk of breast cancer for 5 years unless they have severe osteoporosis.

The draft guidelines state that for women at high or moderate risk of the disease, anastrozole results in considerably fewer cases of breast cancer. It also costs less than two other drugs – tamoxifen and raloxifene – that some women at high-risk take to reduce their risk of breast cancer.

Nicola Smith, senior health information officer at Cancer Research UK, said that anastrozole has different, but for most women more manageable, side effects than tamoxifen.

“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,” she said.

“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.”

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For high-risk pre-menopausal women, tamoxifen is still recommended to reduce the risk of breast cancer.

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

“Around half of GPs aren’t aware of both drugs’ preventative benefits so it’s important they’re told about this updated NICE guideline in order to prescribe tamoxifen and anastrozole wherever appropriate.”

Professor Mark Baker, director of the centre for guidelines at NICE, said: “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.”