Doctors say Anastrozole could be game changer in breast cancer battle

GILBERT, AZ - Some doctors say it's a game changer in the battle against breast cancer.

A drug study found thousands of high risk, post-menopausal women cut their risk of breast cancer by more than half over five years with a drug called Anastrozole.

The drug, marketed as Arimidex, is already a therapy used to keep breast cancer from coming back for those who've had the disease.

Breakthroughs like this are bringing hope to many women-- even if they can't use it themselves.

41-year-old Charlene Cunningham has a family bond she wishes she could break.

"My grandmother died about 20 years ago of ovarian related cancer, her two sisters died of breast cancer," she said.

Then she found out another relative had ovarian cancer.

"So that of course threw the entire family into a frenzy."

So Charlene and 19 family members got tested for the BRCA2 gene . Sixteen of them tested positive, including Charlene and her three sisters.

"So with a 60 to 80 percent chance of getting breast cancer, that's absolutely terrifying," she said.

It also means a higher risk of ovarian cancer, so Charlene had a hysterectomy. But with the risk of breast cancer still there, she faced ultrasounds, MRIs and mammograms every three months.

"Waiting for those test results is absolutely the most horrifying thing," she said.

She decided enough was enough and scheduled a preventative mastectomy.

"The amount of relief, just waking up after that last surgery was phenomenal. To know that I don't have to go through that anymore," Cunningham said.

Dr. Mary Cianfrocca with Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center was there for Charlene every step of the way.

Dr. Cianfrocca says preventative mastectomies are one option.

"Women differ in how they view risk. And how much they're willing to do to reduce their risk," she said.

And there are some drugs out there to consider too, besides Arimidex.

"Well in an ideal world, we'd like to eliminate breast cancer. All of these drugs reduce your risk, but nothing reduces your risk to zero," she said.

Charlene is watching it all closely. She hopes her 14-year-old daughter won't have to take the measures she did.

"I'm a mom. I have three kids. I have to do whatever I have to do to make sure that I'm here for them. Some people call it extreme, I call it pretty logical," she said.

Charlene says the surgeries were the right choice for her, but understands why others might not make the same decision.

What to do if you think you think you're high risk

First, you need to see a doctor, and talk to him or her about your family and medical history.

Click here for questions to ask.

"I think the first step that needs to be taken is to truly assess what an individual women's risk really is of developing breast cancer. Because some women think they're at very high risk for developing breast cancer, and then when they talk to their physician about their personal and family history, they're really not," said Dr. Cianfrocca.

From there, your doctor may recommend you see a genetic counselor and undergo some tests. Genetic testing can be costly. Some health insurance plans cover it under preventative costs, but others do not.

If you take the tests and are found to be high risk, doctors will walk you through your options when it comes to preventative care.

There are a few prescription drugs out there to help with breast cancer prevention, but there's only one option for premenopausal women.

"The most common effects of all these drugs are hot flashes. They can also cause joint pains," Dr. Cianfrocca said.

A preventative mastectomy is another option. Some patients who chose to do this undergo reconstructive surgery after that.

Dr. Cianfrocca says cancer specialists are always monitoring new developments in cancer research.

"I think progress is always promising. And I think it's good to have more options to be able to discuss with women so that they can choose what's right for them," she said.

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