Leeds, UK—Why do so many women at higher risk of developing breast cancer avoid taking a drug that can help prevent the disease?

A new study in Clinical Breast Cancer helps provide some answers to that question.

A survey conducted by University of Leeds researchers and colleagues found that 72% of respondents said they were worried about the long-term effects of tamoxifen and 57% believed that the drug would give them unpleasant side effects.

“Uptake of preventive therapies for breast cancer is low,” study authors write. “We examined whether women at increased risk of breast cancer can be categorized into groups with similar medication beliefs, and whether belief group membership was prospectively associated with uptake of preventive therapy.”

The survey involved 400 healthy women at a higher risk of breast cancer from 20 centers across England. Participants were asked about their views of taking tamoxifen, as well as other concerns about medication.

Results indicate that almost a third (29%) of the women believe physicians prescribe too many medicines, and more than a third (35%) thought doctors would prescribe fewer drugs if they had more time. Around a quarter (24%) of the women responded that they had experienced bad reactions to medicines in the past, and 23% said they were very sensitive to drugs.

At the same time, nearly a quarter (24%) of the survey responders expressed the view that people on medication should take regular breaks from the drugs, and 17% said they believe natural remedies were safer than medicines.

A follow-up questionnaire, answered by 250 of the women, revealed that fewer than 15% were taking tamoxifen, even though they had discussed preventive therapy with a healthcare professional. Less likely to be on the drug were women who expressed a belief that the medication was less necessary and had more concerns about its use.

“Women in our study were rightfully considering the potential harms and benefits of using preventive therapy,” explained Samuel Smith, PhD, of the University of Leeds. “But some beliefs about the use of medicine were very negative. This appears to be putting some women off tamoxifen, despite its proven ability to help prevent breast cancer in the long term.

“We need to make sure health care professionals are adequately equipped to discuss the potential benefits and harms of preventive treatment with their patients so that women are well informed before deciding whether or not to take a drug,” he added.

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