Dr Anna Kemp
There is no doubt that endocrine (anti-hormone) therapies are lifesaving medicines for women with early breast cancer – what is less certain is whether Australian women are taking the therapies in a way that can give them the best outcomes, WA researcher Dr Anna Kemp says.
Dr Kemp says anti-hormone therapies, such as tamoxifen and arimidex, are vital for preventing recurrence after the initial tumour has been removed. “They starve the tumour cells so that any cells left behind can’t regrow,” she says. “We know from clinical trials they have to be used for at least five years to reduce the chance of the cancer returning.”
Dr Kemp, from the University of Western Australia, and lead investigator Professor David Preen have an NBCF-funded grant (co-funded with Cancer Australia) to examine how endocrine therapies are used in Australian clinical practice. Dr Kemp says some women in international studies are stopping their endocrine therapies well before the recommended five years, often because of side effects. “We want to know how big a problem this is in Australia so that we can target strategies to support women better.”
A group of women diagnosed with early breast cancer have agreed to let the research team look at their health and medication records.
“We have many years of prescription records to look at, so we know when these medicines are dispensed at the pharmacy, if there is a change in medicine type, and if there are gaps in treatment,” Dr Kemp says. “We can link into those women’s hospital and Medicare records to see their health outcomes, including if the cancer returns.”
Dr Kemp says the results will show whether doctors are prescribing endocrine therapies according to clinical guidelines, as well as identify groups of women who are at risk of poor outcomes because they have stopped taking these medicines early or have big gaps in treatment.
“If it’s a matter of the side effects being intolerable, patients need to know they can go back to their doctors, rather than just stopping their medicines,” she says. “We hope our study will also raise awareness among clinicians about monitoring their patients and asking how they’re going with the therapies.”
Dr Kemp says five years of endocrine therapy is more effective than chemotherapy in preventing early breast cancer coming back.
“These are lifesaving medications and if there are reasons that women find it difficult to take them, I encourage them to speak to their doctor. It’s always their choice, of course, but it’s important they have all the information.”
Dr Kemp says NBCF funding is vital as the Foundation is willing to fund important research outside the key areas of prevention and cure development.
“A lot of research bodies prioritise research that is looking at prevention or cure and that is incredibly important,” she says. “The NBCF funds prevention and cure, but it also recognises the importance of making sure all the money that has gone into developing these treatments pays off.
“There’s no point in developing effective treatments if we aren’t using them in the right way. Our team are really grateful to NBCF for supporting this work and helping us make sure anti-hormone medicines are used properly.”