What Patients Need to Know About Hormone Therapy for Breast Cancer Treatment

Breast cancer is a complex disease. And to make matters even more complex, there are multiple different kinds of breast cancer. This diversity means that there are also many different treatments for breast cancer. After you are diagnosed, your doctors will collaborate and recommend a unique course of treatment for you. Often, a component of that treatment is hormone therapy. Patients are often confused as to what hormone therapy is, how it works, and why it's a necessary part of their breast cancer treatment protocol. After reading this article, you will have answers to those questions.

What is hormone therapy?

When the term "hormone therapy" is used in relation to breast cancer, it is usually referring to the use of drugs that block or reduce the action of estrogen on breast cells. The two most common drugs used for this purpose are tamoxifen and toremifene. Usually, these drugs are prescribed after the patient undergoes surgery, chemotherapy, and/or radiation treatment to remove the majority of the cancer cells. Some patients may only stay on hormone therapy for a few months, but others take these medications for years as a preventative measure to keep cancer from coming back.

How does hormone therapy work to treat breast cancer?

Hormone therapy helps fight breast cancer because some types of breast cancer cells have estrogen receptors. When estrogen binds to those receptors, it triggers them to divide, which causes cancer to spread. These medications selectively bind to the receptor sites on breast cancer cells so that estrogen cannot bind to those sites. This, in turn, prevents breast cancer cells from continuing to divide and spread.

Are there any side effects associated with hormone therapy?

The medications used for breast cancer hormone therapy actually act like estrogen on all tissues other than breast tissue. As such, the most common side effects are those associated with getting a little too much estrogen — mood swings, blood clots, and increased vaginal bleeding. Doctors will sometimes prescribe a progesterone supplement to be taken alongside the hormone therapy drugs. This usually counteracts some of the side effects. 

A so-called positive side effect of these medications is that they increase bone density. So women who have hormone therapy for breast cancer have a lower risk of osteoporosis as they age.

Hormone therapy is a common component of breast cancer treatment, so if it is recommended for you, do not be surprised. Although it does have its side effects, it is effective and pretty straightforward to take. For more information, contact breast cancer treatment services.