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Tamoxifen is a drug that reduces and/or stops the effects of estrogen (a female hormone) in the body. It was developed over 30 years ago and has been used to treat both advanced and early stage breast cancer. More recently, tamoxifen is being used as an adjuvant, or additional, therapy following primary treatment for early stage breast cancer. It is also used to try to prevent breast cancer in women who are at high risk.
Tamoxifen is taken by mouth in tablet form and is usually prescribed as a single daily dose.
As a breast cancer therapy, tamoxifen works against the effects of estrogen, which has been shown to promote the growth of breast cancer cells. It is often called an anti-estrogen:
As a treatment for breast cancer, the drug slows or stops the growth of cancer cells that need estrogen to grow and spread.
As adjuvant therapy, tamoxifen has been shown to help prevent the development and recurrence of breast cancer. Research has shown that when tamoxifen is used as adjuvant therapy for early stage breast cancer, it not only prevents the recurrence of the original cancer but also prevents the development of new cancers in the opposite breast, in many cases.
As a preventive therapy, tamoxifen has been shown to help prevent the development of breast cancer in high-risk women.
While tamoxifen acts against the effects of estrogen in breast tissue, it acts like estrogen in other body systems. According to the National Cancer Institute, women who take tamoxifen may experience many of the beneficial effects of menopausal estrogen replacement therapy, such as a slowing of bone loss (osteoporosis).
Women considering taking tamoxifen should consult their doctor. Different women experience side effects differently. Some side effects may include:
Hot flashes and sweats
Nausea and vomiting
Loss of appetite
Irregular menstrual cycles
Fatigue (extreme tiredness)
Irritation of skin around the vagina
Less common but serious side effects may include:
Uterine or endometrial cancers
Make sure you talk with your doctor if you experience any side effects. Some doctors and researchers caution, however, that tamoxifen therapy may not be appropriate for all women who are at increased risk for breast cancer. Consult your doctor for more information regarding your individual case.