Adjuvant aromatase inhibitors following tamoxifen for early-stage breast cancer in postmenopausal women: what do we really know?

Cathie T Chung, Robert W Carlson
Clinical Breast Cancer 2004, 5 Suppl 1: S18-23
Adjuvant hormonal therapy in the treatment of women with early-stage, hormone receptor (HR)-positive breast cancer is now considered the standard of care. Adjuvant tamoxifen decreases the risk of breast cancer recurrence and death in women with early-stage breast cancer when taken for 5 years. The benefits of tamoxifen are counterbalanced by toxicities including an increased risk of endometrial cancer and thromboembolic events. The selective aromatase inhibitors (AIs)--including anastrozole, letrozole, and exemestane--are challenging the role of tamoxifen as the adjuvant hormonal therapy of choice in postmenopausal women. Results of the Arimidex and Tamoxifen Alone or in Combination trial favor the use of anastrozole over tamoxifen as initial adjuvant hormonal therapy, with improvement in disease-free survival (DFS) and a favorable toxicity profile. The results of 2 large adjuvant trials using AIs sequentially with tamoxifen in postmenopausal women with early-stage, HR-positive breast cancer have been reported. The MA-17 study randomized women to placebo or letrozole for 5 years after completion of 4.5-6 years of initial tamoxifen. The Intergroup Exemestane Study (IES) randomized women following 2-3 years of adjuvant tamoxifen to continue to receive tamoxifen or switch to exemestane for a total of 5 years of adjuvant hormonal therapy. The MA-17 and IES trials demonstrated superior DFS with the AI and corroborated the smaller GROCTA-4B and Italian Tamoxifen Arimidex trials, which studied sequential therapy with aminoglutethamide or anastrozole. There is now substantial medical evidence supporting the use of AIs in postmenopausal women with early-stage, HR-positive breast cancer.

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