What is hormone therapy?
Certain hormones in the body assist hormone-sensitive cancer cells to grow. Hormone therapy blocks the effect of natural hormones on cancer cells, i.e. it prevents the cancer cells from getting the hormones they need to grow. Hormone therapy is also called hormonal therapy, hormone treatment, or endocrine therapy. When choosing a hormonal therapy, you and your doctor will weigh the benefits and possible side effects before deciding on a hormonal therapy treatment plan that suits your needs.
Hormone therapy is used to:
- Treat cancer by slowing its growth
- Lower your risk for cancer recurrence
- Ease cancer symptoms
Understanding hormone therapy
Hormones are natural substances made by glands in our bodies. They are responsible for many functions in our body, including the growth and activity of certain cells and organs. Some types of cancers, like prostate and breast cancer, use hormones to grow or develop. These types of cancers are hormone-sensitive or hormone-dependent and can thus be treated with hormone therapy.
Hormone therapy can be used to block the body’s ability to produce hormones, interfere with hormone receptors or by making the hormone unable to function in the body to stop or slow down the growth of cancer.
Hormone therapy can be used for the following types of cancer:
- Breast cancer
- Prostate cancer
- Ovarian cancer
- Uterine or endometrial cancer
Hormone therapy is most often used along with other cancer treatments. The types of treatment that you need depend on the type of cancer, if it has spread and how far, if it uses hormones to grow, and if you have other health problems.
How is hormone therapy administered?
Hormone therapy is used to treat cancers that are fueled by certain hormones. Depending on the type of hormone therapy needed, the way it is administered may differ. Hormone therapy is administered in the following ways:
- Orally through tablets.
- Injections given in the muscle of the arm or leg.
- Surgically by removing the glands or organs that produce hormones. For women, the ovaries are removed while for men, the testicles are removed.
Your oncologist will test your body's response to treatment by measuring the presence of the specific hormone in the body. For men, regular PSA tests will be done to ensure your PSA levels decrease. For those taking hormone therapy for breast cancer, you will have regular checkups and mammograms (if applicable).
Side effects of hormone therapy
Hormone therapy should not interfere with your ability to work, however, because the hormones play a vital role in the body's functioning, lack of certain hormones may cause complications.
The aim of the following information is to give you an understanding of what side-effects may be involved in this treatment. People respond differently to the same treatment, so not everyone gets the same side effects. Different types of treatments also cause different side-effects.
Some common side effects for men who receive hormone therapy for prostate cancer include:
- Hot flashes
- Loss of interest in or ability to have sex
- Weakened bones
- Enlarged and tender breasts
Some common side effects for women who receive hormone therapy for breast cancer include:
- Hot flashes
- Vaginal dryness
- Changes in your periods if you have not yet reached menopause
- Loss of interest in sex
- Mood changes
The decrease of the hormones in the body can also put patients at higher risk of developing osteoporosis. Your oncology team, however, can provide treatment to counteract this side-effect. Dietary steps and supplementation, such as increasing calcium and vitamin D intake, can also be taken to decrease your osteoporosis risk.