Aromatase inhibitors (AIs) are the standard treatment for postmenopausal women with hormone receptor–positive breast cancers. One of the most common side effects of AIs is joint pain; it is also the most frequently cited reason for nonadherence and discontinuation before completion of the prescribed treatment course. Nonadherence and, in particular, discontinuation, can lead to increased rates of breast cancer mortality. The prevalence of AI-induced arthralgias is about 50%, and there are several interventions, including switching to a different AI, that can increase adherence. The healthcare professional plays a part in fostering adherence by communicating the side effects of AIs to patients before the initiation of treatment, as well as explaining the strategies for addressing these side effects, should they occur.
Adjuvant endocrine therapy is the standard of care for women with estrogen receptor– and progesterone receptor–positive breast cancers. Endocrine therapies include aromatase inhibitors (AIs), such as the nonsteroidal compounds letrozole and anastrozole and the steroidal compound exemestane. All three AIs have comparable benefits and side effect profiles. The selective estrogen receptor modulator tamoxifen has anticancer activity in pre- and postmenopausal women. While AIs only have anticancer activity in postmenopausal women, they are superior to tamoxifen at reducing the risk of recurrence and improving overall survival.[1-3]
AIs and tamoxifen require long-term daily self-
administration of oral medications for 5 years, and in some cases, 10 years. However, up to 28% of women in clinical trials, and as many as 73% in community practice settings, prematurely discontinue these drugs.[4-6] AI adherence in particular is suboptimal, ranging from 50% to 91% over 5 years of therapy, and only 40% to 60% of women complete the recommended course of AIs.[7-9] A consequence of nonadherence and discontinuation is an increase in breast cancer mortality.[8-10]
Medication “adherence” is synonymous with medication “compliance.” Adherence is measured over time and reported as a percentage. The preference for “adherence” over “compliance” is due to the former term’s less harsh and judgmental connotations regarding patients’ behavior. Persistence is the duration of time from initiation to discontinuation of therapy, and is a continuous variable referring to the duration of treatment.[11,12] Persistence is a specific aspect of adherence.
There are several ways to measure adherence. One method is to review prescription refill data and the medication possession ratio (MPR). The MPR is the ratio of total days of medication divided by the entire duration of days that the drug is prescribed for, with adherence defined as > 80%. Another method of measuring adherence is to use patient-reported data, which may take into account behaviors and experiences. The most straightforward and reliable way to measure adherence is to ask the patient if she is taking the medication.
Risk Factors Leading to Treatment Nonadherence and Discontinuation
There are many independent risk factors for treatment nonadherence and discontinuation, including adverse effects; disease stage; use of chemotherapy (ie, taxanes); comorbidities; demographic features such as age, lower socioeconomic status, and race; and psychosocial factors such as quality of life, emotional distress, attitude toward therapy, and perception of self-efficacy.[13-16]
Adverse effects are the most common reason for nonadherence to and discontinuation of endocrine therapy. A survey of 538 women with early-stage breast cancer receiving endocrine treatments found that 18% of women discontinued therapy within 5 years, and 94% of them experienced adverse effects. Among those who discontinued AIs, two-thirds reported that they “did not like the adverse effects.” Importantly, about 25% of the women in this study discontinued treatment without consulting a medical provider, thus missing an opportunity for guidance or shared decision making.
Adverse Effects of Endocrine Therapy
The adverse effects of endocrine therapy include hot flashes, vaginal dryness, dyspareunia, osteoporosis, and arthralgia/myalgia. For many of these side effects, there are proven interventions, including venlafaxine or gabapentin for hot flashes; vaginal moisturizers, dehydroepiandrosterone, the intravaginal laser MonaLisa Touch, and minimal doses of intravaginal estrogens for dyspareunia or vaginal dryness; and vitamin D and calcium supplementation, bisphosphonates, and denosumab for osteoporosis and osteopenia. Here, we will focus on arthralgia and myalgia, because mitigating these symptoms can prove especially challenging.
Arthralgia and myalgia are the most common side effects of AI treatment and contribute the most to nonadherence and discontinuation. The prevalence of AI-induced arthralgia is 50% (range, 20% to 73%). Some studies combine data on arthralgia and myalgia, referring to the two together as ‘musculoskeletal symptoms.’ We have followed this practice here, using the term ‘AI-induced arthralgia’ to encompass myalgia as well. In one study of women with early-stage breast cancer receiving an adjuvant AI, more than half of those who discontinued treatment reported grade 2/3 arthralgia as the reason.
The primary criteria defining AI-induced arthralgia are:
• Joint pain develops or worsens while a patient is taking an AI.
• If the AI is stopped for 3 weeks, the joint pain goes away. When the AI is subsequently restarted, the joint pain returns.
Minor criteria include:
• The joints are affected symmetrically.
• The patient complains of pain in the hands or wrists, carpal tunnel syndrome, and/or decreased grip strength.
• Joint stiffness is worse in the morning.
• Exercise improves symptoms.
AI-induced arthralgia tends to occur soon after initiating treatment with an AI, with a median onset of 1.6 months (range, 0.4 to 10 months). The mechanism(s) of AI-induced arthralgia are not entirely understood. MRI findings show tenosynovitis with enhancement and thickening of the tendon sheaths, consistent with an inflammatory process.
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