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Why is Hormonal Therapy Used for Breast Cancer Treatment?

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Hormonal therapy medications are whole-body (systemic) treatment for hormone-receptor-positive breast cancers. When hormone receptors in the breast get signals from hormones, cell growth increases. And since the more hormones there are in the body (particularly estrogen and progesterone), the more cancer cells will grow. So the point would be to decrease the hormone growth systemically.

Therefore, hormonal therapy medicines are used to:

 Decrease the chances of early-stage hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer recurring

 Decrease the chances of hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer in women who are at high risk but cancer-free at the present

 Help shrink or slow the growth of advance-stage or metastatic hormone-receptor-positive breast cancers

Hormonal therapy medications can be used in treatment instead of ovarian shutdown or removal. With ovarian shutdown, the ovaries are surgically removed as a risk-reduction measure in treating hormone-receptive-positive breast cancer. This will permanently stop estrogen from being produced. While some appreciate this fact, others may choose medications for personal reasons of their own.

What it is Not

Please be aware that hormonal therapy is not hormone replacement therapy (HRT). Hormonal therapy, as stated previously, is used to decrease the hormone level in the body and HRT is used to increase it. Hormonal therapy is used in regards to hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer while HRT is used to treat symptoms of menopause. It is considered very unsafe to use HRT if a patient is diagnosed with this type of cancer.

Types of Hormonal Therapy Medicines

There are three types of hormonal therapy medicines:

Aromatase inhibitors
Estrogen-receptor downregulators (ERDs)
Selective estrogen receptor modulators (SERMs)

Aromatase inhibitors act as a barrier to the enzyme aromatase, which ultimately means less estrogen to simulate any breast cancers. Side effects for this drug may be heart problems, bone loss, joint stiffness or joint pain.

ERDs neutralize the effect of estrogen in breast tissue. If estrogen can’t connect to breast tissue, the signal to multiply doesn’t get to the cancer cells. Side effects may include various digestive problems, headache, back pain and hot flashes.

SERMs also prevent estrogen from getting to cancer cells, although with this drug, estrogen can reach other parts of the body that need it, such as the bones and uterine cells.

Side effects for SERMs can be very serious -- blood clots, stroke and endometrial cancer -- so if you choose this type of medicine (or any of the above) and start to have strange symptoms like dizziness, shortness of breath or weakness, please contact your physician as soon as possible.

Your Decision

Please remember to communicate with your doctor or medical team. Discuss your choices, any side effects and fears. Together, you can come up with a plan that works best for you.


Hormonal Therapy. BreastCancer.org. Web. 24 October 2011.

Breast Cancer and Hormone Therapy. WebMD. Web. 24 October 2011.

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Reviewed October 24, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.