Hormone therapy for breast cancer aims at administering drugs to treat certain varieties of breast cancer which are responsive to certain hormones. The most commonly used technique to treat breast cancer in women includes administration of drugs that work by blocking the hormone estrogen from binding to its receptor.Another important mode of treating breast cancer using hormones is by suppressing production of estrogen by the body.
Hormone therapy is usually prescribed in patients who had a surgery to remove the cancerous growth in the breast. Sometimes the doctor may recommend hormone therapy before operating on the tumor to shrink the size of the tumor. In patients where cancer spreads to other organs, hormone therapy helps in controlling the spread of the tumor to other body parts. In breast cancer, patients are usually given hormones for 5 years. Common drugs used for hormone therapy include tamoxifen and aromatase inhibitors like anastrozole, letrozole and exemestane.
Certain types of breast cancer increase in size because estrogen in the body promotes its growth. These tumors are referred to as estrogen receptor positive. Following surgery to remove the breast cancer, the specimen is sent for microscopic analysis for estrogen receptors. If it is found to be positive for estrogen receptors then hormone therapy is advised to suppress the supply of estrogen to the breast tumor. Hormone therapy is advised in all patients with a tumor that is positive for estrogen receptors irrespective of the size and stage of the cancer.
Hormone therapy is administered in order to:
- Prevent cancer from recurring at the same site after initial removal of tumor and conventional chemotherapy.
- Reducing the risk of developing cancer in other areas of the breast other than the initial site.
- Reduces or stops the rate of growth of tumor.
- Shrinks the size of the tumor before surgery.
Before undergoing hormone therapy for breast cancer, the consulting doctor discusses the benefits and the risks of associated with specific options. Premenopausal women have to be made aware of birth control. Patients who were taking tamoxifen must avoid falling pregnant as the drug is harmful to the growing fetus. Therefore non-hormonal birth control options are recommended in the patient and should be continued for 2 months even after completing hormone therapy for breast cancer.
Hormone therapy is prescribed as once daily dosing after surgery and after completion of chemotherapy. Sometimes hormonal therapy and radiation therapy are continued simultaneously. In certain cases the doctor may prescribe hormone therapy before surgery in order to reduce the size of the tumor before surgery. This improves the surgical outcome. The timing, dosage and duration of hormone therapy depends upon individual person’s health requirements.
Hormone therapy for breast cancer is not without side effects and health risks. However, the benefits of hormone therapy usually outweights the possibility of these side effects and risks. Side effects depend upon the drug administered. Common side effects include hot flashes, discharge from the vagina, nausea, vaginal dryness, joint pain and skin rashes. Uncommon and more serious side effects include cataract, stroke, blood clotting in veins, thinning of bones and heart disease.