Hormone Therapy for Cancer

What Is Hormone Therapy for Cancer?

Part of what makes cancer a serious health risk is a capacity for turning the body’s own systems against it. Hormones play a critical role in regulating sexual and other aspects of our physiology but certain cancers also use hormones as fuel, like a car uses gasoline. Medical researchers recognize this, and have developed various means of depriving cancers of this advantage. These treatments are called hormone or endocrine therapies. They are systemic, meaning that they can reach cancer cells anywhere in the body.

Not every cancer responds to hormone therapy. This form of treatment is used primarily with breast and prostate cancers. It is often utilized with surgery or radiation, to shrink tumors beforehand or to prevent the return of a cancer afterwards. Because hormone therapy is systemic, it can also be used to destroy cancer cells that have spread beyond their point of origin.

Hormone therapy is a critical weapon in the medical war on cancer. To learn more about cancer detection and treatment, see the cancer care providers at Baptist Health.

How Does Hormone Therapy for Cancer Work?

Hormone therapies are designed to reduce or eliminate contact between hormones and cancer cells. They do this in one of two ways: by blocking cell receptors from attaching hormones or by decreasing the body’s hormone production.

Hormone therapy is conducted mostly by means of medication. The drug or drugs selected by your physician will depend on several factors, such as your cancer’s stage of development, what other treatments you’ve received, and, if you’re a woman, whether or not you’ve undergone menopause.

There are three primary contexts in which hormone therapy is used:

  • Neo-adjuvant therapy: Treatments focus on shrinking tumors prior to radiation therapy or surgical excision.
  • Adjuvant therapy: Treatment occurs after surgery or radiation, to decrease the possibility of cancer coming back.
  • Systemic therapy: Treatment takes place when cancer has metastasized, that is, spread to other locations in the body.

Hormone medications come in pill and injectable forms. The surgical removal of hormone-producing organs is another form of treatment. The setting for hormone therapy – at home, in a doctor’s office, or in a hospital – depends on the nature and severity of the cancer. Periods of treatment can last several weeks before surgery or radiation, and continue for months or even years afterwards.

Persons undergoing hormone therapy will see their physician on a regular basis. He or she will evaluate how you’re doing, looking for evidence of cancer’s return (for example, elevated PSA levels for individuals with prostate cancer).

What Are the Side Effects of Hormone Therapy for Cancer?

Potential side effects of hormone therapy for breast cancer include:

  • Stomach upset
  • Fatigue or feelings of weakness
  • Pain in joints and muscles
  • Hot flashes
  • Vaginal dryness, irritation, or discharge
  • Loss of menstrual periods (in premenopausal women)

More serious, but less frequent, side effects may include cataracts, osteoporosis, blood clots, stroke, heart ailments, and uterine or endometrial cancers.

Hormone therapy for prostate cancer can also lead to unintended side effects:

  • Shrinkage of the male sex organs
  • Diminished sex drive
  • Impotence
  • Osteoporosis
  • Anemia
  • Muscle decline and fatigue
  • Weight increases
  • Spikes in cholesterol levels
  • Loss of mental acuity
  • Growth of breast tissue
  • Hot flashes
  • Depression

Other possible side effects are nausea, diarrhea, fatigue, dizziness, and liver problems.

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