Aromatase inhibitors for early-stage breast cancer

Photo of patient and doctor talking
PantherMedia / Alexander Raths

In breast cancer, new, malignant tissue starts growing in a mammary gland. If the cancer remains within a limited area around the breast and doesn't spread to other parts of the body (metastasis), it is referred to as early-stage breast cancer. Some of the breast lymph nodes may also be affected.

Women who have early-stage breast cancer have several treatment options, depending on the type of tumor, their individual health circumstances and their personal preferences. The standard treatment is to try to surgically remove as much of the tumor as possible. Additional (adjuvant) therapy – in the form of radiation, hormone therapy or chemotherapy – can be used to try to kill any remaining cancer cells.

About two thirds of all women with breast cancer have a hormone-sensitive tumor. This means that like estrogen influence how fast the cancer cells grow. If the cancer cells have receptors that the can attach to, the tumor is referred to as hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer (HR-positive or HR+). Anti-hormone therapy is a possible treatment for hormone-receptor-positive cancer. This aims to slow down tumor growth.

Anti-hormone therapy can work in several ways, including the following:

  • By blocking hormone receptors on the cancer cells: The drug tamoxifen is similar to estrogen. When it is used, it blocks certain hormone receptors that are also found on the cancer cells, so that the natural estrogen in the body can no longer attach to them.
  • By inhibiting estrogen production: After menopause, most of the estrogen in women's bodies is produced in the adrenal glands and in muscle and fat tissue. There it is needed for the production of an enzyme called aromatase. Drugs such as anastrozole, extemestane and letrozole block aromatase, thereby preventing the production of estrogen in the body. That is why they are called aromatase inhibitors. Before menopause, estrogen is mainly produced in the ovaries. The aromatase inhibitors are ineffective there, though. So younger women who have not yet entered menopause are first treated with the drug tamoxifen.

Assessment of aromatase inhibitors

In 2016, the Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG, Germany) looked into how treatment with aromatase inhibitors compares with no treatment, placebo (fake) treatment, or other anti-hormone therapies, such as tamoxifen. The Institute also looked for differences between different aromatase inhibitors.

They found suitable data on the following treatments with aromatase inhibitors:

No suitable or practice-oriented data was available for the following treatment approaches using aromatase inhibitors:

  • Neoadjuvant therapy: In neoadjuvant therapy, treatment with medication is started before surgery in order to reduce the size of the tumor and make it easier to operate on.
  • Sequential therapy: In sequential therapy, over the course of five years patients first take tamoxifen and then switch to an aromatase inhibitor (or take the aromatase inhibitor first and then switch to tamoxifen). The decision to switch medications is made beforehand, directly after breast surgery.

Due to the lack of data, it still isn't clear whether aromatase inhibitors have any advantages or disadvantages when used in these two treatments approaches.

Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG, Germany). Aromatase inhibitors in female breast cancer: Final report; Commission A10-03. September 20, 2016. (IQWiG reports; Volume 437).

IQWiG health information is written with the aim of helping people understand the advantages and disadvantages of the main treatment options and health care services.

Because IQWiG is a German institute, some of the information provided here is specific to the German health care system. The suitability of any of the described options in an individual case can be determined by talking to a doctor. informedhealth.org can provide support for talks with doctors and other medical professionals, but cannot replace them. We do not offer individual consultations.

Our information is based on the results of good-quality studies. It is written by a team of health care professionals, scientists and editors, and reviewed by external experts. You can find a detailed description of how our health information is produced and updated in our methods.

Comment on this page

What would you like to share with us?

We welcome any feedback and ideas. We will review, but not publish, your ratings and comments. Your information will of course be treated confidentially. Fields marked with an asterisk (*) are required fields.

Please note that we do not provide individual advice on matters of health. You can read about where to find help and support in Germany in our information “How can I find self-help groups and information centers?

Created on July 27, 2017
Next planned update: 2020

Authors/Publishers:

Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG, Germany)

How we keep you informed

Follow us on Twitter or subscribe to our newsletter or newsfeed. You can find all of our films online on YouTube.