Breast cancer is one of the leading causes of death among American women today. But new reports show that two drugs are able to help reduce breast cancer deaths.

CBS news reports on the two new drugs.

Both of the drugs are generic and inexpensive, and they can be particularly helpful to women who develop breast cancer after menopause.

The two new studies were published on Friday in The Lancet, a class of hormone-therapy drugs called aromatase inhibitors and bone-preserving drugs called bisphosphonates increased survival and recurrence rates in postmenopausal women with early cases of breast cancer.

Dr. Dawn L. Hershman, associate professor of medicine and director of the breast cancer program at the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center at Columbia University and New York-Presbyterian Hospital commented on the study. She said, “It may be that this is a first step in helping us figure out which patients are more likely benefit and which patients are not. We can strategize to give the medications that are going to give the most benefit and avoid the toxicity and the cost for patients with minimal benefits.”

The first study, a meta-analyses, led by the Early Breast Cancer Trialists' Collaborative Group in Great Britain, looked at the results of many studies on hormone therapy breast cancer treatments and bone drugs over a period of ten years.

Experts say that around two-thirds of breast cancer patients are post-menopausal women with hormone-sensitive tumors. These types of tumors use either estrogen or progesterone, or sometimes even both, to advance and flourish.

Researchers say that hormone therapy for breast cancer, very different from hormone replacement therapy for menopause, works to either block out receptors for estrogen or progesterone on the tumor or it tries to take out these hormones from the system.

The reports say that the guidelines have been to utilize aromatase inhibitors in post-menopausal early-stage cancer that is hormone-sensitive. CBS reports, “In terms of the bisphosphonates, I think that it gives us some insight into the fact that agents that affect the bone also effect likelihood of recurrence [of cancer] in the bone.”

Though tamoxifen has been utilized this way for many decades, use of aromatase inhibitors, which delete estrogens made outside of the ovaries, have become more of a standard for post-menopausal patients. These two new studies have shown they are more effective at decreasing breast cancer deaths and recurrence than the drug tamoxifen.

Experts say the ten year death rate was around 12.1 percent with aromatase inhibitors, versus 14.2 percent with tamoxifen. Researchers also found that the breast cancer returned more frequently with tamoxifen than with aromatase inhibitors treatment.

Dr. Hershman said, “Aromatase inhibitors have really surpassed tamoxifen in post-menopausal women. Not only are they slightly better, the side effects are less troublesome.” She also said that these results might help researchers think about approaches to treating the cancer, which gives us other targets: the tissue itself as opposed to the tumor on its own.

The lead author of the aromatase-inhibitor study, Professor Mitch Dowsett of The Royal Marsden and The Institute of Cancer Research in London, said that the impact of aromatase inhibitors is specifically remarkable given how specific these drugs actually are in their effect.

What are the effects of all of these drugs?

Although both types of therapy have side effects, those from tamoxifen can be more life threatening. Tamoxifen can heighten risk for blood clots in the lungs and legs, stroke, cataracts and even uterine cancer.

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Gerry Oginski
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