Naturally occurring hormones can cause some types of cancer cells to grow. One type of breast cancer, for example, is called “estrogen receptor positive” because the cancer cells in this type of tumor are often “fed” by estrogen and progesterone hormones, which are produced naturally in the body. Similarly, prostate cancer cells in men need testosterone to grow.
How Hormone Therapy Works
Hormone therapy is the process of blocking or stopping tumor-enhancing hormones from stimulating cancer cells. It is often used after surgery, or with chemotherapy, to reach any hormone-dependent cancer cells still in the body.
Types of Hormone Therapy
There are two basic types of hormone therapy. One is surgery to remove the source of the hormones. In men with prostate cancer, for example, the testes may be removed. In premenopausal women with breast or uterine cancer, the ovaries may be removed.
More typically, hormone therapy involves using other hormones or medications to block tumor-feeding hormones from reaching the cancer cells. The most frequently used hormone treatment for breast cancer is an estrogen-blocking medication called tamoxifen. Tamoxifen is given in a pill form. Treatment for early-stage breast cancer generally lasts about five years. Medications that lower the amount of testosterone in a man’s body as a treatment for prostate cancer are typically given by injections, with a shot every one to four months.
Hormone Therapy Medications
If hormone therapy is part of a treatment plan, the type of medication — or combination of medications — prescribed by the medical oncologist will depend on the type of cancer being treated and the cancer stage. Other factors, such as the patient's overall health, are also taken into consideration.
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Medical oncologists are physicians who specialize in treating cancer with a variety of cancer-fighting medications. Our medical oncologists meet with patients and their families to determine an individualized treatment plan working with other cancer specialists and oncology nurses.
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Side effects vary from person to person and from therapy to therapy. Tamoxifen, for example, can produce hot flashes, nausea, vaginal spotting or increased fertility in younger women. Less common side effects include vaginal itching, bleeding or discharge, loss of appetite, eye problems, headache and weight gain. Some medications taken for prostate cancer can cause a reduced interest in sex, impotence, hot flashes, breast tenderness, nausea, diarrhea and fatigue. Some have also have been known to cause cardiovascular problems.