Hormones are chemicals that are naturally produced by our body’s organs and glands. These chemicals travel throughout the body in the bloodstream, regulating and coordinating a variety of important body functions. Some of the hormones that you may recognize include estrogen, testosterone, insulin, epinephrine and cortisol.
Unfortunately, some of your hormones can help fuel certain types of cancer cells, allowing them to grow. In other cases, blocking certain hormones can either make the cancer grow more slowly or stop it from growing.
What is hormone therapy?
Hormone therapy is a type of cancer treatment that involves taking medicines that block a hormone or stop the body from making it. Surgically removing the gland that makes the hormone is another type of hormone therapy. This should not be confused with hormone replacement therapy (HRT), which is not a cancer treatment and is used to replace the hormones a woman’s body no longer makes while going through menopause.
For breast cancer patients, for example, we can perform a hormone receptor test to predict if the cancer cells are sensitive to hormones. This test measures the amount of certain proteins, called hormone receptors, in cancerous tissue. If the test is positive, then hormone therapy may be used to keep the hormone away from the cancer cells or hormone receptors. If the test is negative, hormone therapy would have no effect, so other types of cancer treatments will be recommended and provided.
In addition to breast cancer, hormone therapy is also commonly used to treat prostate cancer in concert with other cancer treatments. For all cancers, the types of cancer treatments that a patient receives depends on: the type of cancer; if it has spread to other parts of the body and how far; if it uses hormones to grow; and if the patient has other health problems.
Types of hormone therapy
The type of hormone therapy that an oncologist recommends will depend on the:
- Person’s age
- Type and size of the tumor
- Presence of hormone receptors in the tumor
When used with other treatments, hormone therapy can make a tumor smaller before radiation therapy or surgery (called non-adjuvant therapy), and hormone therapy can lower the risk of the cancer coming back after treatment (called adjuvant therapy). Hormone therapy can also be used to destroy cancer cells that have spread to other parts of your body or returned following treatment.
Side effects of hormone therapy
Since hormone therapy either interferes with how our hormones behave or blocks our body’s ability to produce them, patients can experience a variety of unwanted side effects that are a small price to pay for the benefits. Some of the most common side effects (and those more likely to experience them) include:
- Hot flashes (men and women)
- Loss of interest in sex/impotence (men and women)
- Nausea (men and women)
- Fatigue (men and women)
- Diarrhea (men)
- Enlarged and tender breasts (men and women)
- Headaches (women)
- Mood changes (women)
- Skin rash (women)
- Vaginal dryness or changes in periods (women)
- Weight gain (women)
Your oncologist can’t predict with 100 percent certainty which side effects any one patient might experience, but in general, hormone therapy should not prevent you from being able to work and live your life.
We typically prescribe and give hormone therapy in one of three ways:
- Oral - Taking pills that you swallow
- Injection - Taking shots in your arm, thigh or hip
- Surgery - Removing organs that produce hormones (such as the ovaries or testicles)
How will you know it is working?
During hormone therapy for breast cancer, women will have regular checkups that include a physical exam, a mammogram (on unreconstructed breasts), and other imaging and lab tests. They may take the hormone therapy for several years following surgery, radiation or chemotherapy.
During hormone therapy for prostate cancer, men will have regular prostate-specific antigen (PSA) tests. PSA levels may stay the same or go down, but elevated PSA levels can mean that the hormone treatment is no longer working, requiring other treatment options. If PSA levels drop and remain low over time, additional treatments may not be necessary.
To schedule a mammogram in Bremen, Carrollton or Villa Rica or the Mammography on the Move unit, call 770-812-9721. More information about the advanced cancer care options available at Tanner can be found online at www.TannerCancerCare.org.
Dr. Qu is a board-certified oncology and hematology specialist with Northwest Georgia Oncology Centers in Carrollton. For more information, call 770-333-2220 or visit ngoc.com.