Women at high risk of breast cancer could be offered daily course of drugs

Almost half a million healthy women at high risk of getting breast cancer should be offered a cheap course of drugs that can drastically cut their chances of contracting the disease, according to new guidance for doctors released today.

Hundreds of thousands of women with a family history of the cancer should be offered the £120 five-year “pill-a-day” course of tamoxifen or raloxifene as an alternative to surgery chosen by celebrities including Angelina Jolie and Sharon Osbourne, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) said.

Preventing people from developing the cancer will also save the NHS huge amounts of money treating patients at a time when its budget is under considerable pressure, the health regulator’s new guidelines also argue.

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Dr Caitlin Palframan, assistant head of policy at Breakthrough Breast Cancer, said the guidance would allow at-risk women to make an informed choice about their future. She added: We believe that this guideline is a game changer for people with a family history of breast cancer.

“In fact for breast cancer overall it’s a historic step for prevention.

“We think more women will have more options to reduce their risk, which ultimately means we will prevent more breast cancer cases.”

A previous clinical trial found that tamoxifen, taken for five years, reduced the risk of developing invasive breast cancer by about 50 per cent in post-menopausal women who were at increased risk of getting the disease.

Another trial found that five years of raloxifene reduces breast cancer risk in such women by about 38 per cent. This drug is more expensive than tamoxifen but Nice said it would still be a cost-effective option for the NHS.

Tamoxifen has been used for 40 years to treat breast cancer in the UK, whole raloxifene is currently licensed to help treat osteoporosis in women who have gone through the menopause.

Neither drug is currently licensed as a preventative treatment in this country, although tamoxifen is used in this way in the US. The treatment will be offered to women aged 35 and over deemed to have a high risk (more than 30 per cent) or moderate risk (17-30 per cent ) of contracting breast cancer.