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10 November 2017, 03:08 | Lena Norman
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All of the patients were given a type of anti-oestrogen therapy, such as tamoxifen or an aromatase inhibitor, for five years as part of their treatment. Numerous women in the current study began treatment as early as 1976, when there wasn't a wide range of breast cancer treatment options available.
This risk is evident even among patients with the best prognoses, say the authors.
This is because the cancer is caused by the hormone oestrogen causing cells to grow.
"Our main aim was to determine whether we could identify subgroups of women who stop endocrine therapy after five years in whom long-term risks are so small that any additional benefits from extended therapy would be unlikely to outweigh the additional side effects", write the authors in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Although the women didn't have cancer during the five-year time period, the researchers found that after they stopped taking the drugs, about 11,000 women had cancer recur at another site on their body over the next 15 years.
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Professor Richard Gray, one of the lead authors from the University of Oxford, said that treatment has improved since numerous women were diagnosed so recurrence rates would be somewhat lower for today's patients.
Dr Hongchao Pan, from Oxford University, said: "It is remarkable that breast cancer can remain dormant for so long and then spread many years later, with this risk remaining the same year after year". All of the participants were prescribed hormone therapy drugs for five years, a typical treatment for this type of cancer that helps to suppress tumors. However some patients choose to halt hormone treatments early because of side effects such as menopausal symptoms, osteoporosis, joint pain or carpal tunnel syndrome.
It's important to point out that since this research began, new drugs are being used to treat breast cancer, and these work in a different way to tamoxifen.
He said: "It's vital that work continues to better predict which cancers might return".
"We would urge all women who have had treatment for breast cancer not to be alarmed, but to ensure they are aware of the signs of recurrence and of metastatic breast cancer, and to speak to their GP or breast care team if they have any concerns".
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