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Good news for young women at high risk of breast cancer — the protective effects of tamoxifen last for as long as 20 years.

Women who took the pill for five years still had a lower rate of breast cancer an average of 16 years later, and for some, the protection lasted 20 years, researchers told the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium.

The ongoing study of more than 7,000 women showed the women who took tamoxifen for five years had a 29 percent lower risk of breast cancer than those who were given a placebo.

Breast cancer is the second-biggest cancer killer of American women, after lung cancer. The American Cancer Society says more than 232,000 cases will be diagnosed this year, and more than 39,000 people will die of it.

“We found that the reduction in breast cancer incidence remains strong and unabated for 20 years,” said Jack Cuzick of Queen Mary University of London, who led the study.

Tamoxifen is recommended only for women who haven’t gone through menopause yet, and in many cases is considered a far better alternative than having a preventive mastectomy. “For postmenopausal women, the aromatase inhibitors anastrozole or exemestane are probably better alternatives, both in terms of greater effectiveness and better side-effect profiles, but for premenopausal women, tamoxifen remains the only choice and it is a good one,” said Cuzick.


-- Maggie Fox