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Which medications can help prevent breast cancer in women at high risk?

There are medications to help decrease the chance of breast cancer in high-risk women. These medications are tamoxifen and raloxifene. Tamoxifen and raloxifene can slow or block the negative (bad) effects that estrogen can have on breast tissue. These drugs are known as selective estrogen receptor modulators (SERMs). In some cases they can even prevent cancer. Raloxifene is used only in women who have been through menopause. Tamoxifen can be used before or after menopause.

Research studies in the United States and Europe have shown that tamoxifen can prevent breast cancer in women who are at high risk for breast cancer. Raloxifene is often used to prevent and treat osteoporosis in women who have gone through menopause. If a woman is taking raloxifene for osteoporosis and is also at high risk for breast cancer, studies have shown that the raloxifene can lower her risk for breast cancer. Raloxifene has about 30% fewer side effects than tamoxifen. Five years seems to be the best length of treatment for most women.
Janelle C. Sanda, MD
Internal Medicine
For women at high risk for breast cancer, some drugs can lower the odds of developing disease -- though no medication comes with a guarantee. In this video, Dr. Janelle Sanda discusses the benefits and downsides of these drugs.
There are certain medications that can help prevent breast cancer in women who are at high risk. Chemoprevention, taking a medicine in an attempt to lower cancer risk, can provide more choices for high-risk women.
These medications are estrogen receptor modulators (SERMs), which is a fancy way of saying that they block the hormone estrogen from acting on cells in the body. The hormone, estrogen has positive effects in the body like protecting the bones and heart. However, the estrogen our bodies make can also act on breast tissue to increase breast cancer risk. Drugs that block estrogen in this way can lower breast cancer risk. These drugs all have risks and benefits that should be reviewed with your doctor.
Tamoxifen is a SERM medication that has been used for more than 20 years to treat women with breast cancer. A national study of over 13,000 healthy women at increased risk found that the drug can lower the risk of developing breast cancer by 49 percent. Tamoxifen has also been linked with some protection from bone loss.
Raloxifene (also called Evista) also decreases breast cancer risk. It has the added benefits of protecting from bone loss and promoting good cholesterol levels.
It is likely that there will later be more medications available for chemoprevention, so staying in touch with your medical team is crucial. It is important to know all current alternatives including the risks and benefits of each before making a decision about chemoprevention.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.