10 Ways to Prevent Breast Cancer Today

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Should You Pop Pills to Prevent Cancer?

Potential Preventatives

While drugs such as tamoxifen -- currently the only FDA-approved drug for reducing breast cancer incidence -- have helped many breast cancer survivors effectively stave off a recurrence, scientists are closely watching whether these same medications can benefit healthy, albeit high-risk, women. By attaching to receptors in breast cells, tamoxifen locks out natural estrogen that might promote cancer growth. A National Cancer Institute study showed it can reduce the chances of breast cancer 44 percent among women at high risk because of their age, family history or previous precancerous breast changes. Hot flashes are the most common side effect, but tamoxifen also carries a small risk of uterine cancer, stroke, and blood clots in the lungs.

Aromatase inhibitors, a newer alternative already being used to treat breast cancer patients, block the action of an enzyme that the body needs to produce estrogen, thereby lessening the amount of hormone the body makes. Side effects commonly include hot flashes, nausea, and joint and muscle pain.

Researchers in the United States and Canada are currently recruiting 4,500 healthy, postmenopausal women for a five-year study to see whether aromatase inhibitors can prevent breast cancer among those at increased risk for the disease. Advance word: Researchers expect to see a two-thirds reduction in breast cancer incidence.

Another potential preventative is the osteoporosis drug raloxifene (its brand name is Evista). In a large study of its bone-building effects among postmenopausal women with osteoporosis, researchers found that raloxifene cut breast cancer risk 76 percent. The drug is now being tested against tamoxifen among postmenopausal women at high risk for breast cancer. First results are expected by next summer.

Aspirin's Breast Benefits?

In 2004, a study of 3,000 women found that regular aspirin use reduced the risk of estrogen-sensitive breast cancer by nearly 30 percent. Researchers suspected that aspirin decreases production of aromatase, which in effect suppresses estrogen production. The same study looked at ibuprofen but found that aspirin had a much stronger protective effect. A year earlier, research involving 81,000 women ages 50 to 79 had found that aspirin and ibuprofen users had a 21 percent reduction in the incidence of breast cancer over women who didn't take the drugs.

On the basis of these and other findings, doctors were cautiously optimistic that taking aspirin might offer women protection against both breast cancer and heart disease. But this year, a California study involving more than 114,000 women found that women who took aspirin daily for five years or more had an 81 percent greater risk of developing estrogen-negative breast cancer, which can be more aggressive and harder to treat than the estrogen-dependent type. The researchers also found that women who took ibuprofen daily for five years or more had about a 50 percent increased risk of developing either type of breast cancer.

Even experts don't know what to make of the conflicting findings. "The minute you tell women, 'This is a risk,' some study comes along showing 'No, it's not,'" says Ruby Senie, PhD, a breast cancer researcher and professor of epidemiology at Columbia University's School of Public Health, in New York City. A randomized trial may shed more light on these observational studies. Until then, if you need one of these drugs for occasional pain relief, don't be afraid to take it.

Don't Delay Your Breast Exam

On October 21, National Mammography Day, make it a point to schedule your annual breast exam if you haven't done so already. Starting at age 40, women should have two x-rays of each breast once a year, recommends the American Cancer Society. While routine screening won't prevent breast cancer, catching it in its early stages will increase the likelihood of treating it successfully. To find a breast-imaging facility in your area, call the American Cancer Society at 800-227-2345.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, October 2005.


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