Side effects are common for drugs that are taken over the course of many years, such as drugs to lower cholesterol or reduce blood pressure. Doctors can usually tell if a patient has stopped taking drugs like these through blood tests. But the only way for a physician to know if a patient has stopped taking aromatase inhibitors after breast cancer is to ask her.
"Patients often do not volunteer that kind of information. It's up to the doctor or nurse to directly ask them," said Dr. Harold Burstein, a breast oncologist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. "And it's important to do that because they may be able to take an alternative treatment that doesn't have those side effects."
Aromatase inhibitors have been shown to improve a woman's chance of survival after breast cancer by 30 percent, a powerful reason to continue treatment. But doctors say reports of such intolerable side effects are equally important to consider.
"These pills have very profound benefit against breast cancer, but if people don't take the pills, they don't work," Brooks said. "I can tell you that this study will change my perception to ask questions of patients as we're treating them."