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What is chemoprevention?

Cancer begins when healthy cells change and grow uncontrollably. This forms a mass called a tumor. The process of a healthy cell becoming a cancerous one usually takes years. And many genetic, dietary, and lifestyle factors, such as smoking, may influence this process.

Cancer chemoprevention uses substances to stop cancer from developing. These substances may be natural or made in a laboratory. A doctor uses chemoprevention to lower a person’s risk of developing cancer, especially for:

  • People who are at a high risk of developing cancer. This includes those with an inherited cancer syndrome or a family history of cancer.

  • People who have already had cancer. Chemoprevention can lower the risk of a cancer recurrence or a new cancer. A recurrence is when the cancer comes back after treatment.

The drugs used for chemoprevention are typically not used to treat cancer. And taking them does not fully protect a person from developing cancer in the future.

Examples of chemoprevention drugs

The following are examples of medicines used for chemoprevention:

  • Tamoxifen (Soltamox) and raloxifene (Evista). Researchers have studied these medicines as a way to lower risk of breast cancer. They are most effective in lowering the risk of estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer. This type of breast cancer depends on the hormone estrogen to grow.

Tamoxifen blocks the effects of estrogen on tumor growth. It has also been shown to lower the risk of a breast cancer recurrence. Raloxifene has been shown to lower the risk of breast cancer in women who have gone through menopause.

  • Aspirin and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). NSAIDs may lower the risk of many types of cancer in people with an average risk of cancer.

Risks and benefits of chemoprevention

The risks and benefits of chemoprevention are different for each person. For example:

  • Drugs that may lower the risk of cancer can also cause side effects. People with a higher risk of developing cancer may be willing to accept specific side effects. But others may not want to use a drug that gives them side effects when they are not sick.

  • The effect of chemoprevention seen in research studies may be different from what you experience.


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