Saturday, 22 June 2019

Weekly Discussion Summary ~ Coping with Tamoxifen and other Hormonal Treatments

Coping with Tamoxifen and other Hormonal Treatments

The topic for this week’s discussion was ‘Coping with Tamoxifen and other Hormonal Treatments.’ 

Our discussions about Tamoxifen and other hormonal treatments for breast cancer are among our most commented upon. We are struck by the struggles that some women experience and some of us suffer significant adverse side effects. It may be that for every woman who struggles, there are several who tolerate the drugs without problems, but we suspect these are few. What baffles us is not only the lack of support and information available for women prescribed these treatments, but for many, the lack of recognition given to the cumulative impact of these effects on our quality of life. Since many of us are now taking hormonal treatments for ten years (some of us for five), that, we agreed, is a long time to be taking tablets that make us feel unwell. 

Very often, our active breast cancer treatment finishes - surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy - and then we are sent off into our futures with a packet of pills, and the message we are given is that we are now “well” and we can carry on with our lives. Our experiences point to a very different reality and many of us feel far from well.

There is substantial evidence to support the effectiveness of tamoxifen and aromatase inhibitors (letrozole, anastrozole, exemestane) in preventing a recurrence of breast cancer. These drugs work by eliminating oestrogen from the body, thus providing protection against oestrogen fed cancers. It’s important to bear in mind that there are many different types of breast cancer, and each of us will have her own individual treatment regime. For those cancers not oestrogen receptive, such as triple negative breast cancer, there is no equivalent ongoing drug, which can leave those not taking medication feeling unprotected and vulnerable.  

Generally speaking, Tamoxifen is given to pre-menopausal women and AIs to post-menopausal women, as the drugs act on the body in a slightly different way, but we do find many older women commonly taking Tamoxifen so this is not a hard and fast rule.

For those of us who tolerate these drugs well, there is a significant comfort factor in knowing we are doing all we can to prevent the recurrence of cancer, although it needs to be remembered that taking these tablets can be a daily reminder of breast cancer.  For those of us who suffer side effects that compromise their quality of life, this can present a huge challenge. The list of side effects is varied and long, and may include: menopausal symptoms such as hot flushes and bone, joint or muscle pain, mood swings, fatigue, weight gain, vaginal dryness and impaired cognitive function to name but a few. Many women reported feeling below par all the time, and unable to fully enjoy life as a result. As a lack of oestrogen may affect bone density, this needs monitoring and is a further worry. For some of us, the side effects are so bad that we cannot tolerate these treatments, and so in consultation with our oncologists, we experiment with different versions of the medication and we try to address the side effects with counteractive treatments. For a few of us, there comes a point where we just feel so awful that we decide not to continue taking the drugs. 

The difficulty is that for these women, there just isn’t enough help and support in managing the side effects. It is a worry that women give up the drug without knowing that they may be able to take action to feel better and find that they can keep going after all.

Our previous discussions focus on how we feel when taking these drugs, and our summaries are available on our website. There is also a specific piece on branding.

What action can we take to help ourselves whilst on Tamoxifen or AIs?  

Trying a different brand is often what it takes to settle the side effects, and sticking to one brand once we’ve found what suits us can also be helpful. This isn’t always easy as pharmacies tend to supply the cheapest option at the time, but it is possible with the help of a friendly GP and pharmacist who will specify and fulfil a brand named prescription. 

Side effects may be more severe at first, so it’s worth persevering to see if they settle, but also we think that side effects may be cumulative with aromatase inhibitors as our body’s oestrogen becomes more and more depleted. 

Hot flushes may be helped by a mild dose of an antidepressant, and some women have found acupuncture helpful.  

Joint pain is helped by regular gentle exercise. Supplements may be helpful, such as magnesium, and we suggest consulting a medical professional before taking these. 

Taking short breaks to allow the body to recover may be useful, again in conjunction with our GP or oncologist. 

Our advice to anyone taking these drugs is not to suffer in silence, but to seek help. Speak to your GP and have a frank discussion. Groups like ours, we agree, can help hugely as we share tips and support each other with our issues.

If you are a woman living in the UK with a breast cancer diagnosis and you would like to join our private group, please send us a private message.


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