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Breast cancer prevention drug provides benefit long after women stop taking it

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women.  Yet fewer than one out of 10 women at higher risk take medication for prevention.  New research finds one medicine continues to lower the chances of cancer long after women stop taking it.

Missy Schaffer lost her mother and grandmother to breast cancer.  When Missy learned she had some abnormal breast cells, caregivers in the Breast Cancer Prevention Center at K.U. Cancer Center recommended she lower her risk by taking a pill for five years.

And what are her other options?

"Having a mastectomy, having a hysterectomy; I just didn't want to go through all that," said Schaffer.

The pill, tamoxifen, blocks estrogen receptors on breast cells.

"By blocking the estrogen in the breast, you prevent cells that like that estrogen from growing into cancer," said Dr. Jennifer Klemp, Director of Cancer Survivorship at K.U. Cancer Center.

Schaffer just finished the standard five years of treatment.  A new study found women continue to benefit long after they stop taking tamoxifen.  The study in The Lancet Oncology found that as long as 16 years later, their risk of breast cancer was 30 percent lower than those who'd taken an inactive pill.

"Thirty percent may not sound like much, but if I told you it takes 22 women to take the drug to prevent one woman from getting breast cancer, that puts it into terms I think they understand," said Dr. Klemp.

Yet she knows fewer than one in 10 women eligible to take tamoxifen for prevention do take it.  She says because of Angelina Jolie, women are more aware of mastectomy as an option.

"We reserve preventive surgery or preventive mastectomies for those at highest risk -- meaning those who have a genetic mutation," said Dr. Klemp.

Jolie has a genetic mutation.  Dr. Klemp says even though tamoxifen has some side effects, few women get them. She thinks many more women could benefit from the medicine.

Schaffer is glad to know she has some long-lasting protection.

"It's great.  I know.  I think a lot of women should think about doing it," she said.

Studies have found that in the shorter term, tamoxifen cuts the risk of breast cancer in half.  Dr. Klemp says talk with your health care provider about getting a risk assessment to find out what your chances of getting the cancer are.  Depending upon how high your risk is, tamoxifen could be a good option.