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Femara Prevents Breast Cancer Recurrence

Drug Picks Up Where Tamoxifen Leaves Off in Reducing Cancer Risks

How Femara Works

Femara is currently approved by the FDA as a primary treatment for advanced breast cancer and as a secondary treatment for other types of breast cancers. It's part of a class of drugs known as aromatase inhibitors that work by suppressing estrogen production in the body.

Novartis, the pharmaceutical company that makes Femara, is a WebMD sponsor. Other aromatase inhibitors include Arimidex and Aromasin. 

Goss says that as breast cancer cells begin to outwit the protective effects of tamoxifen therapy after long-term use, aromatase inhibitors step in and reduce the risk of breast cancer recurrence by lowering estrogen levels in the body and starving hormone-dependent breast cancer cells of the estrogen they need to grow and survive.

Researchers say that even though postmenopausal women's bodies have stopped producing estrogen, residual estrogen remains in fat and other tissues that might eventually trigger a breast cancer recurrence.

Because Femara deprives the body of estrogen, it has also been linked to an increased risk of osteoporosis and other hormone-related side effects such as hot flashes. But researchers say the drug was well tolerated in the study and these side effects were generally rare.

Harold Burstein, MD, PhD, a breast cancer specialist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, says ongoing studies may eventually show that other aromatase inhibitors provide similar breast cancer benefits as Femara because the entire class of drugs works in the same way to deplete estrogen levels.

"But in talking to patients right now, this is the drug to be talking about because it is the only one for which we have data," Burstein tells WebMD. "I would not encourage people to think of other drugs instead of this one."

Questions Remain

Experts say that although these findings are remarkable, there are still many questions about Femara that remain unanswered.

For example, because the study was stopped short, researchers know little about the long-term risks of Femara use or the optimal duration of use.

Another issue is whether the thousands of breast cancer survivors who have been off tamoxifen for more than three months would experience the same benefits from starting therapy with Femara.

"We have no reason to believe they might not also benefit from [Femara], but clearly further study is needed to know how long is too long to consider [Femara]," says researcher James Ingle, MD, of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., who also spoke at the conference.

Ingle says the actual reduction in breast cancer recurrence risk offered by Femara will vary greatly, depending on each woman's risk factors, such as the size and aggressiveness of the primary tumor.

"Patients should sit down with their doctors to talk about their specific situation," says Ingle.

Cost is also another factor to be considered, as Femara costs about $6 per pill and coverage for treatment may vary according to insurance providers.

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