Safety profiles of tamoxifen and the aromatase inhibitors in adjuvant therapy of hormone-responsive early breast cancer

Edith A. Perez

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

93 Scopus citations


Adjuvant endocrine therapy plays an important role in the management of hormone-receptor-positive early breast cancer, and has increased life expectancy for millions of women. Many patients receive adjuvant treatment for at least 5 years following tumor resection, hence good long-term safety is important for endocrine agents to gain widespread acceptance. Tamoxifen has been used as adjuvant therapy for early breast cancer for many years, and safety data have been well documented, but a poor risk:benefit profile limits treatment duration to 5 years. Increased efficacy over tamoxifen and good tolerability have recently made the third-generation aromatase inhibitors (AIs) the first-choice agents for adjuvant endocrine therapy; however, it is currently not known whether AI therapy, like tamoxifen, will be limited to 5 years. Many side effects of endocrine therapy, such as hot flushes and mood disturbances, are related to estrogen deprivation and are common to tamoxifen and AIs, reflecting the mechanism of action of these drugs. In addition, tamoxifen has estrogenic effects that are beneficial in some tissues: tamoxifen lowers serum cholesterol levels and protects against bone loss and cardiovascular disease, but is also associated with potentially life-threatening side effects, such as endometrial cancer and thromboembolic disease. As AIs lack estrogenic activity, they are not associated with these serious adverse events. Clinical trials comparing AIs with tamoxifen in the adjuvant setting have shown that AIs are well tolerated and are associated with a lower incidence of gynecological symptoms and hot flushes than tamoxifen. However, AIs are associated with musculoskeletal side effects, such as arthralgia, myalgia and bone loss, but these events are preventable or manageable. The effects of AIs on lipid metabolism and the cardiovascular system are still debatable, but placebo-controlled trials provide no evidence to suggest that AIs adversely affect these systems. Furthermore, the AIs allow women to maintain a good quality of life, comparable with women receiving tamoxifen or placebo, and are a cost-effective therapeutic option. Ongoing trials will provide more information regarding the long-term effects of AI therapy and will provide comparative data on the efficacy and safety of the different AIs, thereby helping to determine the optimal treatment strategy for these highly effective and well-tolerated drugs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)viii26-viii35
JournalAnnals of Oncology
Issue numberSUPPL. 8
StatePublished - Sep 2007


  • Aromatase inhibitors
  • Breast cancer
  • Hormone-responsive
  • Safety
  • Tamoxifen

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Hematology
  • Oncology


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