Tamoxifen debated as breast cancer prevention drug

(Photo: Flickr/AJC1)

A startling number of women at high-risk for developing breast cancer aren't taking a drug that could help prevent it, and it's because of what doctors call serious but rare side effects.

Doctors estimate that up to 95 percent of women who are eligible to take chemoprevention drugs like Tamoxifen don't use them, and in many cases, it's because of a fear of side effects such as blood clots, stroke and uterine cancer.

"You're giving a medicine to treat a patient who does not actually have a disease, so you really have to weigh the risks and benefits," oncologist Dr. Karen Smith said.

Smith, who practices at MedStar Washington Hospital Center, says that potential patients hear about those side effects and get scared. However, that didn't deter Carolyn Kelly-Miles, whose father had breast cancer.

"I'm all for doing what's right, so I didn't give it a second thought," Kelly-Miles said. Studies have shown that Tamoxifen can reduce the likelihood of high-risk patients developing breast cancer by up to 50 percent.

"It kind of scared me a little bit, but if it's going to do what it needs to do, then I'll take it," she said.

However, for another patient, Gigi Washington, the potential risks outweighed the potential benefits, especially after the drug didn't work for her mother.

"I have no guarantee that it works," Washington said. She's considered mastectomy, along with a more holistic and dietary approach to the possibility, instead.

Kelly-Miles, though, says that the side effects have been limited to some hair loss and hot flashes. Despite being still nervous about getting breast cancer, she says she feels better about being proactive.