Understanding Hormone Therapy

In the search for newer and better ways to treat disease, doctors and scientists have learned that our own bodies sometimes hold the keys to new medicine. A case in point is hormone therapy, a type of treatment that relies on the natural properties of hormones, a type of chemical substance the body manufactures through the endocrine system. Hormones, such as the male hormone testosterone and the female hormone estrogen, travel through our bloodstream to help set certain bodily processes in motion. Hormone therapies work with the natural properties of these substances to relieve symptoms and even fight diseases, including cancer.

When most people think of hormone therapy, they likely think of the type of therapy used over the past few decades to relieve some of the symptoms of menopause. This is known as menopausal hormone replacement therapy (sometimes abbreviated as HT or MHT), hormone replacement therapy (HRT), postmenopausal hormone therapy (PHT), or post menopausal hormones (PMH). Although this type of therapy was effective for relieving symptoms such as hot flashes and sweating, over time, studies showed that the risks of taking these medicines outweighed the benefits for most women. As a result, these therapies are not as widely prescribed as they once were, and women in menopause today consider the risks of this type of therapy and whether they outweigh the benefits for them.

When it comes to treating and preventing cancer, physicians use a different type of hormone therapy. These kinds of therapies are effective because some cancers, including certain types of breast, prostate, and uterine cancer, are affected by hormones in the blood. For example, breast cancers known as ER-positive and PR-positive breast cancers have receptors on the cell that bind to the hormones estrogen and progesterone. Anti-estrogen drugs, such as tamoxifen, temporarily block these receptors, and as a result, the cancer may not grow or spread. This type of therapy is most often used to reduce the risk of breast cancer returning after surgery or for treating cancer that has metastasized (spread). And women with a high risk of breast cancer may also use this therapy to reduce their risk of developing cancer in the first place.

Men with prostate cancer might also rely on hormone therapy as a part of their treatment. Medications that lower the levels of male hormones in the body or block certain hormones from getting to prostate cancer cells may cause the cancer to grow more slowly or shrink. Although this type of treatment won’t cure the cancer, it can help control it, reduce the symptoms, and cut down the risk of the cancer returning after treatment.

Hormone therapies can do much to help treat hormone-sensitive cancers. But there are side effects. Women can have menopause-like symptoms and an increased risk of blood clots. In men, hormone therapy can lead to loss of sex drive and impotence. If you are undergoing hormone therapy or want to learn more about how hormone therapy works, talk to your doctor. He or she can tell you how this kind of treatment might impact your cancer.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master’s-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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