NHS in 'historic' push to offer breast cancer prevention drugs

Jan 15, 2013

Praise for plan to offer drugs to women who are healthy but at risk because of family history

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THE NHS is considering taking the "historic" step of offering drugs that reduce the risk of breast cancer to women who are currently healthy but have a family history of contracting the disease.

The National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) is drawing up draft guidelines that would enable the drugs tamoxifen and raloxifene to be given to at-risk women in England and Wales for five years in a push to prevent healthy women developing breast cancer.

NICE says not enough is being done to protect such women, typically those who have a sister or aunt who was diagnosed with the disease before the age of 50.

Under the guidelines being considered by NICE, tamoxifen would be given to pre-menopausal women (and some who have been through the menopause), while raloxifene would be given only to post-menopausal women, The Guardian says.

If the guidelines governing the drugs' distribution are approved later this year, they would be the first of their kind in the UK, says the BBC.

Breast cancer is the most common form of the disease in the UK and affects about 50,000 women a year. Just under one per cent of women are in the high risk category, NICE says, so about 550,000 women in England and Wales would be eligible for the drugs if the proposals are introduced.

The Daily Mail says international trials suggest tamoxifen can cut the risk of breast cancer by a third after five years and the "preventative effect" can last as long as 20 years.

NICE, so often in the news for blocking the use of expensive drugs by the NHS, has received nothing but praise for its recommendation. Cancer groups and charities are delighted because they feel much more should be done to prevent the disease rather than simply treat it.

Chris Askew, head of the Breakthrough Breast Cancer charity, described the move as "exciting" because women with a family history of the disease need "an array of options to help them control their risk".

The plan to make the cancer-preventing drugs available on the NHS are part of wider proposals to tackle familial breast cancer, says Sky.

The guidelines also call for extended "genetic testing" of women who are at risk of getting the disease and recommend regular MRI scans for "younger women who carry high risk genes".

The director of NICE's centre for clinical practice, Professor Mark Baker, told Sky it was "wise" for any woman with a family history of cancer to get "appropriate investigations and screening".

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