Understanding Breast Cancer Hormone Therapy

About two out of every three breast cancer cases are hormone-sensitive—that is, they are affected by the hormone estrogen or progesterone. If your cancer is hormone-sensitive, you may benefit from a treatment called endocrine or anti-hormone therapy.

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Breast cancer hormone therapy, which is often combined with other treatments, can help treat your cancer and reduce the risk of it coming back. Here’s what you need to know about breast cancer hormone therapy.

How Breast Cancer Hormone Therapy Works

Hormone-sensitive breast cancer cells have receptors or proteins that attach to estrogen or progesterone. Once attached, these hormones stimulate or feed the cancer cells, causing them to grow and spread.

The goal of breast cancer hormone therapy is to slow or stop hormones from growing the cancer. Different types of breast cancer hormone therapy drugs do this in different ways. In general, breast cancer hormone therapy works by either lowering the amount of hormone in the body or interfering with how cancer cells are affected by them.

It’s important to know that breast cancer hormone therapy, which is typically taken by pill or injection, can reach breast cancer cells anywhere. That includes breast cancer cells that have spread outside the breast to other parts of the body.

Thankfully, breast cancer hormone therapy has been shown to be effective in helping prevent cancer recurrence and death. But it’s not a one-size-fits-all treatment. Ask your doctor how breast cancer hormone therapy can benefit your particular cancer and what risks may be involved.

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Loma Linda University Cancer Center
11234 Anderson St., Suite A600, Loma Linda, CA 92354
909-558-2262
Loma Linda University Health – Beaumont – Banning
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When is Breast Cancer Hormone Therapy Used?

If your cancer is hormone-sensitive, you may be prescribed breast cancer hormone therapy after breast cancer surgery, such as a lumpectomy or mastectomy, to reduce the risk of the cancer coming back. This is called adjuvant therapy and is the most common use for breast cancer hormone therapy. It may also be recommended if your cancer has come back after treatment or if it has metastasized to other parts of the body. Some women are prescribed breast cancer hormone therapy to help shrink a large tumor before surgery.

There are three main types of breast cancer hormone therapy:

  • Aromatase inhibitors stop the body’s production of estrogen in post-menopausal women, lowering the amount of available hormone that can attach to cells.
  • SERMs (selective estrogen receptor modulators) block the effects of estrogen in the breast tissue by sitting in the estrogen receptor of the breast cell, preventing estrogen from attaching to the cell.
  • ERDs (estrogen receptor downregulators) work similarly to SERMs in that it blocks the effects of estrogen in the breast tissue, but does so by reducing the number of estrogen receptors in breast cancer cells. It also changes the cells so the receptors don’t work as well.

What to Expect from Breast Cancer Hormone Therapy

The type of hormone drug you receive will depend on a number of factors—from your stage of breast cancer to whether or not you’ve been through menopause. Sometimes, breast cancer patients may begin one breast cancer hormone therapy and later move to a different one.

Depending on your situation, breast cancer hormone therapy can be used alone, after chemotherapy or in combination with other drugs such as targeted therapies. Typically, breast cancer hormone therapy needs to be taken for five years or more.

As with all cancer treatments, breast cancer hormone therapy affects every person differently. Side effects can also vary from drug to drug. Some common side effects include:

  • Joint pain
  • Osteoporosis
  • Hot flashes
  • Vaginal dryness
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue

Talk to your doctor about common side effects of your breast cancer hormone therapy drug and what you can do to manage them.

Patient navigators are registered nurses trained in oncology care to guide you through the challenges of dealing with cancer. They are here to support you as you go through diagnosis, treatment and recovery. Contact the Patient Navigator team at 800-782-2623.

Is Breast Cancer Hormone Therapy Right for You?

Thankfully, breast cancer hormone therapy has been shown to be effective in helping prevent cancer recurrence and death. But it’s not a one-size-fits-all treatment. Ask your doctor how breast cancer hormone therapy can benefit your particular cancer and what risks may be involved.

The Breast Health Center at Loma Linda University Health offers breast cancer hormone therapy in addition to the full spectrum of breast cancer treatment options. Our experienced team of breast cancer specialists designs a comprehensive, individualized treatment plan to fit your needs for the best possible outcomes. In addition, our focus on whole-person care means that we not only treat the cancer, but care for you as a patient.

Remember, you are an important part of your health care team. Take the time to learn about your cancer, ask questions and work with your doctors on treatment decisions that work best for you.