The UK’s biggest breast cancer charity is claiming that lives could be saved if more women were given a cheap drug that could potentially prevent the disease from returning.
Bisphosphonates, which cost around 43p a day, are used to strengthen the bones of women diagnosed with osteoporosis. But a review in 2015 showed that they can also reduce the number of breast cancers in postmenopausal women that spread within 10 years after treatment and recur in the bones, where they become incurable, from 8.8% to 6.6%.
Breast Cancer Now is campaigning for the drugs to be given to all postmenopausal women after their treatment for primary breast cancer. A freedom of information request to clinical commissioning groups around the country showed that just 42 out of 208 CCGs (20.2%) across England are routinely funding these drugs for postmenopausal patients. Thirteen more CCGs (6.2%) said that they will soon be doing so.
Women in Scotland and Wales are more likely to get the drugs. They are available in two of the three cancer networks in Scotland and two of three cancer centres in Wales, says the charity. Not all women would benefit, the charity acknowledges, but it estimates that, if the drug were given routinely to all eligible women in the UK, an extra 1,180 deaths each year could be prevented, the equivalent of one in 10 breast cancer deaths.
Breast Cancer Now laments the absence of guidelines to encourage wider prescribing. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) has looked at the evidence in the 2015 review, but decided it was “insufficient to determine precise subgroups of postmenopausal women who would or would not benefit”. It says the benefit may be less in women with low-risk cancers and also pointed to drugs’ side-effects.