Drugs can help fight breast cancer

Tamoxifen, others slow tumors


Chanel Griffith, Contributing writer

Breast cancer is the second most diagnosed form of cancer in American women, according to MayoClinic.com.

Although finding out that you have breast cancer can be devastating, there are several treatments that have been developed to not only treat breast cancer, but also to prevent it from returning. This is due in large part to the fund-raising and research efforts of organizations such as the Susan G. Komen Foundation and the American Cancer Society.

These efforts have resulted in the development of several drugs that effectively treat breast cancer in various stages and in conjunction with radiation therapies and surgeries.

The most popular breast cancer treatment drugs today are Femara, Tamoxifen, Abraxane, Zometa and Herceptin.

Femara is an aromatase inhibitor given in pill form. When used in conjunction with or after surgery, it can reduce the recurrence of breast cancer.

According to MayoClinic.com, there are some forms of cancer that require estrogen to survive. Aromatase is an enzyme that converts testosterone to estrodial, which creates estrogen in the human body. As an aromatase inhibitor, Femara blocks the production of estrogen, thereby starving the cancer of the estrogen it needs to survive.

According to Femara.com, the drug is only effective for use by postmenopausal women. The most common side effects of Femara are hot flashes, joint pain, hair loss, fatigue and headache. Other potential side effects include heart attack, vaginal bleeding and blurred vision, according to WebMD.com.

Abraxane is a chemotherapy injection that is used to treat breast cancer that has metastasized, or moved to other cells in the body. According to Abraxane.com, the active agent in the drug is paclitaxel, a mitotic inhibitor that blocks the growth of cancerous cells.

Abraxane uses a natural human protein called albumin to transport the paclitaxel through the body instead of chemical catalysts like previous mitotic inhibitors. According to WebMD.com, common side effects associated with Abraxane are temporary hair loss, headache, mouth sores, joint pain and dizziness. It also warns that a blood disorder resulting in a reduced number of white blood cells can occur with the use of Abraxane.

Zometa is an injection treatment that, when used in conjunction with chemotherapy treatments, reduces and inhibits damage when breast cancer, or other cancer forms, metastasize to the bones.

According to a WebMD.com report, 65 to 75 percent of breast cancer patients suffer from bone metastases, which cause increased risk of bone fractures. When breast cancer spreads to the bone, Zometa is used to slow the deterioration of bone proteins during chemotherapy treatments. Side effects that are commonly reported with the use of Zometa are fatigue, nausea, vomiting, and bone and joint pain.

Zometa.com also warns that the injection can possibly cause kidney damage in rare cases. Those who have a history of kidney problems are urged not to take Zometa.

Herceptin is an injection that is used to treat breast cancer tumors that contain abnormally high levels of the human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2) gene. According to WebMD.com, each normal breast cell contains an HER2 gene, which helps the cell grow naturally. When there are high levels of HER2 gene in breast cancer cells, these genes will signal the cancer cells to grow and divide rapidly, causing the cancer to spread fast. This type of cancer is called HER2+. Herceptin inhibits HER2+ cell growth by signaling the body's defense system to attack HER2+ cells to block cell growth.

Side effects of Herceptin reported on Herceptin.com include fever, nausea, headache, a reduction in white and red blood cell count, and diarrhea. More serious side effects such as heart and lung failure are rarely reported.

Tamoxifen, which is taken orally in pill form, is the most popular drug used for the treatment of breast cancer. According to MayoClinic.com, Tamoxifen has been used for more than 30 years in the treatment of both early-stage and metastasized cancers, as well as a preventative medication.

It is called an antiestrogen because it blocks the effects of estrogen in the body. For this reason, Tamoxifen is only effective for the treatment of hormone-sensitive cancers.

MayoClinic.com reports that the most common side effects associated with the use of Tamoxifen are flushing of the skin, interruption of menstrual cycle, swelling of the fingers, hands, legs or feet, and white or brown vaginal discharge. More serious side effects, such as blurred vision, cataracts and fainting, are rarely reported.