Statins are among the world’s most commonly prescribed drugs: The number of US statin prescriptions jumped from 461 million in 2008 to 818 million in 2019.
And cholesterol-lowering drugs are a big business, too: According to a recent study, US statin expenditures reached $10 billion in 2019.
And now, the blockbuster statin class of drugs could get even bigger, as a new report finds statin use can reduce the risk of death from breast cancer.
“Previous studies had suggested that use of statins could be beneficial for breast cancer patients,” said Dr. Jane Carleton of the R. J. Zuckerberg Cancer Center at Northwell Health Cancer Institute.
But those earlier studies found only an association — but not a cause-and-effect link — between statin use and breast cancer survival.
The new study, published today in JAMA Network Open, examined data from more than 13,000 women with breast cancer over an 18-year timespan.
The researchers found that the use of statins after a diagnosis of breast cancer resulted in a reduced risk of dying from the disease — especially if the statin use resulted in significantly lower cholesterol levels.
There was, however, no reduction in mortality among women whose cholesterol levels did not drop significantly after starting statin use.
“This study is both larger and over a long period of time with a really good analysis, and so it much more strongly makes the case that statin use can decrease breast cancer mortality,” Carleton said.
The study sheds new light on years of research into what effect — if any — statins might have on cancer outcomes. As recently as June, study results presented at the National Lipid Association Scientific Sessions 2023 found that prevention of lung, colorectal, prostate and breast cancers is not impacted by use of statins.
Statins can have side effects, including muscle aches, liver problems, memory loss and confusion, but the drugs are generally well-tolerated.
“As with any medications, statins have side effects. However, the majority of patients will tolerate the statins, and they do have multiple benefits,” Carleton said.
“It is well-documented that statin use can decrease the risk of heart attack and stroke, and now we’re seeing data that it has other benefits as well,” she added.
The finding gives new hope to people diagnosed with breast cancer: Over 2 million people develop breast cancer annually worldwide.
Over 680,000 women die of the illness each year, making breast cancer the most common cancer — and the most common cause of cancer death — among women worldwide, according to the study authors.
But Carleton cautions that the new finding doesn’t mean statins are right for everyone with breast cancer.
“Patients have a team of doctors caring for them … and it actually really helps when everyone is saying the same thing. If a primary care [doctor] recommends a statin … we can say, ‘Hey, I think it would be great if you went on the statin, because it also has been shown to lower breast cancer mortality.’”