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Study finds drug can help young breast cancer patients

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Researchers say tamoxifen could save 20,000 lives annually

May 14, 1998
Web posted at: 3:18 p.m. EDT (1918 GMT)

LONDON (CNN) -- Giving younger breast cancer patients the drug tamoxifen could save 20,000 lives around the world each year, British researchers reported Thursday in the medical journal Lancet.

Scientists from Oxford University reviewed clinical trials from 55 countries and found that tamoxifen helped prevent a cancer relapse for women of all ages whose tumors were sensitive to the female hormone estrogen.

Currently breast cancer patients who are under 40 or pre-menopausal have not routinely received the drug therapy because doctors weren't sure it would help them live longer.

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Oxford University scientists believe all women with estrogen-sensitive breast cancer should take tamoxifen  

The comprehensive British study analyzed trials involving 37,000 women. Tamoxifen worked in all age groups, including patients with node-negative tumors that had not spread into the lymph nodes and in those who had chemotherapy.

Relapse rate cut in half

"We've got evidence that this drug, which is already saving more lives than any other cancer drug, could save twice as many lives," Dr. Rory Collins of Oxford said Thursday. The study showed that within 10 years of surgery, about one third of patients relapsed and died. But starting tamoxifen early and continuing for around five years cut the relapse rate in half and improved survival for patients of all ages.

Most breast cancer tumors are sensitive to estrogen, which fuels their growth. Tamoxifen works by blocking estrogen's effects on the tumor and preventing cancer cells from spreading to other parts of the body.

The Lancet study shows tamoxifen also helped to prevent cancer from developing in the opposite breast. This protection lasted throughout a lifetime, even 10 years after a woman stopped taking the drug.

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The tamoxifen study also confirms prevention of cancer in the opposite breast  

Benefits far outweigh risk of side effects

Dr. Harmon Eyre, the chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, gave the tamoxifen study a solid endorsement, telling CNN that it confirms that the drug works.

"Clearly every woman who has breast cancer that is estrogen receptor-positive should take tamoxifen," Eyre said, adding that addition studies should be done on other types of breast cancer.

"It turns out that a woman's chance of being cured is 30 times greater than having a fatal complication or side effect from taking the drug," Eyre said. "So if the woman takes the drug, her rate of benefit compared to risk is 30 to one."

Side effects of tamoxifen can include uterine cancer and blood clots in the lungs, but researchers say the benefits far outweigh the risks: a woman's chance of being cured is 30 times greater than the risk of having a fatal complication.

Tamoxifen is the most widely prescribed drug for breast cancer in the world with sales of $3.2 billion since its launch in 1973.

Correspondent Dr. Steve Salvatore and Reuters contributed to this report.

 
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