Millions of Dollars taken away from Breast Cancer Prevention Research

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • On Tuesday, the federal government pulled the plug on a $100 million research study that would have tested the efficacy of two different types of drugs in preventing breast cancer in women at high risk for the disease. Now place yourself on an imaginary busy street corner, and interview the women passing by. Here’s what you might hear:

    Ann, a healthy woman in her 20s: “Huh, too bad. I wonder what’s playing at the movies this weekend?”

    Marie, a healthy woman in her 50s: “Gee, too bad for that high-risk group. Let’s see, how’d the market do today?”

    Jane, a breast cancer survivor: “What was that they cut $100 million from? Breast cancer research? What kind? For women who haven’t had breast cancer? Oh.”
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    Daphne, a 35-year-old woman with a family history of breast cancer: “I can’t BELIEVE they did that! Is the government really in favor of young women dying needlessly? That’s outrageous!”

    Same news. Different takes. Here are the details, in case you want to generate your own reaction: The National Cancer Institute had planned a $100 million, 5-year study that would have tested raloxifene (an estrogen-blocking drug, like tamoxifen but with fewer side effects) against an aromatase inhibitor, letrozole (a.k.a. Femara) in preventing breast cancer in women with a predetermined high risk for the disease (estimated to be at least 1 million women nationwide). The NCI noted that both drugs carry many side effects, and that their possible danger “outweighs their potential until we are better able to determine who will benefit from these interventions and what the longer term effect may be.” In other words, we’re not sure exactly how many women either drug would benefit, nor whether their side effects would outweigh their benefits.

    Then, of course, there’s that pesky little matter of $100 million. This study was all set to go, having passed through multiple reviews. But come January, budget review time for those of us in the business world, NCI director John Niederhuber formed a committee and called for a new review. Interesting timing. The committee decided not to endorse the project, noting that two similar trials of aromatase inhibitors are already underway, and questioning whether women at risk would use the drugs even if they were proven effective, considering their side effects. So Niederhuber pulled the plug.

    The NCI’s decision evoked a positive response from Breast Cancer Action, a national grassroots education and advocacy organization that questioned giving drugs to healthy women without fully knowing the long-term side effects. Others decried the decision, saying that women at high risk of breast cancer should at least be given the choice of whether or not to take a drug that might prevent it.

    And what about you? If you’re in the high-risk group, I’ll bet you’re disappointed, perhaps bitterly so. If you’re a survivor, you may be disappointed, but it’s much less personal; it doesn’t affect you. And if you’re healthy and with no identified risk, you probably don’t much care one way or the other.

  • Same news, wildly different responses. When it comes right down to it, we all play in our own sandbox, don’t we? My problems aren’t yours; your cause isn’t mine. We’re all entitled to our reactions, but let’s keep this in mind: they’re OUR reactions, not the world’s. As the Rolling Stones so famously sang, nearly 40 years ago: “You can’t always get what you want.”
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Published On: June 21, 2007