MORE than fifty per cent of women taking medication for breast cancer have either forgotten to take their drugs or have chosen not to do so at some point during their treatment, new research suggests.

The study – published in next month’s European Journal of Cancer* – found that while most women who skipped their medication forgot to take it, around one in six of the women made a deliberate decision not to take their treatment. Reasons for not taking medication include finding tablets hard to swallow, difficulty in coping with side-effects such as hot flushes or finding medication a constant reminder of their illness.

The Cancer Research UK team concluded that clear communication about the advantages and disadvantages of treatments may help patients overcome these obstacles. The researchers are uncertain how serious not taking a full course of medication could be in terms of the cancer returning.

Treatment for breast cancer usually involves a combination of surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy, often followed by a daily hormone tablet or monthly injection for up to five years. Researchers wanted to know how well women adhered to their follow up treatment.

One to one interviews were held with 131 women who were at least two years past their initial breast cancer diagnosis and currently receiving medication. Researchers asked each woman “how often do you forget to take your tablets?” and then “how often do you choose not to take your medication?” For both questions the women were given the same responses to choose from – never, occasionally, sometimes, quite often or very often.

Seventy-two women said there were times when they didn’t take their medication. Of these women, 12 said there were times when they intentionally did not take the tablet. The majority of all the women not taking their medication – 60 or around 83 per cent – said it was because they forgot.

Lead author Louise Atkins, based at Cancer Research UK’s Psychosocial Oncology Group at the Brighton and Sussex Medical School University of Sussex, said: “These results confirm that some women choose not to take their breast cancer medication. The findings are concerning because not taking a full course of medication could impact on how effective a treatment will be. Reasons for not taking medication include difficulty swallowing tablets and the side effects of medication. If we can understand more about the reasons why some women don’t take their medication then we’ll be in a better position to help women overcome these difficulties.”

Professor John Toy, medical director at Cancer Research UK, said: “It is vital that women with breast cancer do not deny themselves the chance of the maximum possible benefit from their medication. It is important that women are as well informed as possible about both the benefits and side effects of their medication and so know what to expect. Clear communication can help to ensure that doctors are better informed about how women are dealing with their treatment so as to help reduce any negative impact that treatments might have.”

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* European Journal of Cancer, Volume 42, Issue 14.

Each year more than 41,700 women in the UK are diagnosed with breast cancer and it causes more than 12,400 deaths every year.

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