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What You Need to Know About Hormone Therapy for Breast Cancer

Hormone therapy may be used to treat breast cancer. Hormones are chemicals in your blood. They control how normal, healthy cells grow. For some types of breast cancer, hormones such as estrogen and progesterone can cause breast cancer cells to grow.

When you're first told that you have breast cancer, your doctor will test the tumor to find out if hormones cause it to grow. If the answer is yes, the cancer is hormone receptor-positive and you'll most likely get hormone treatment. If the answer is no, the cancer is hormone receptor-negative and you will probably not be treated with hormone therapy.

The goal of hormone treatment is to stop hormone receptor-positive cancer from getting the hormones it needs to grow. When cancer cells cannot get what they need to grow, they shrink and die. Because hormone treatment goes through your whole body, it’s called a systemic treatment.

If hormone receptor-positive cancer has spread, you’ll most likely get hormone treatment. In this case, it’s used to stop the cancer cells in other parts of the body from growing.

Even if the cancer hasn’t spread, you probably will get hormone treatment if your cancer is found to be hormone receptor-positive. You may get it in addition to chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery. The goal is to prevent breast cancer from coming back and to prevent new cancers from forming.

The doctor who treats you with hormones is called a medical oncologist. There are different kinds of hormone treatments used for breast cancer. Each type works a bit differently. They all have the same goal of stopping hormones from getting to the tumor. If you are taking drugs for hormone treatment, you may want to know what they are, how they work, and the common side effects you should be aware of. Your doctor and nurse will give you the details on your treatment.

How you get hormone therapy

Your doctor may use more than 1 type of hormone treatment. The 2 main methods of hormone treatment are medical and surgical:

  • Medical. For this type of treatment, you take a drug. The drug blocks hormones from causing the cancer to grow. Most of these drugs are pills. Sometimes they are given in a shot. There are 3 main types of hormone treatment drugs: selective estrogen receptor modulators, aromatase inhibitors, and LH-Rh agonists. All of these drugs work in different ways.

  • Surgical. In this treatment, an organ that makes the hormone estrogen is taken out or made to stop working. This stops the cancer from getting the estrogen it needs to grow. For example, if you're still having menstrual periods, the ovaries are your main source of estrogen. Your doctor may take them out to stop the production of estrogen. That, in turn, slows the growth of breast cancer. Another option is to use radiation to make the ovaries inactive.

Online Medical Reviewer: MMI board-certified, academically affiliated clinician
Online Medical Reviewer: Welch, Annette, MNS OCN
Last Review Date: 9/23/2013
© 2013 Krames StayWell, 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare provider's instructions.