Hormones After Breast Cancer: Not Fuel For The Fire After All
Natural hormones reduce breast cancer tumors and have positive effects on cardiac and bone health
image: Mice on hormones exercised more than ones on the current treatment, estrogen blockers, leading to better overall health.view more
A new study supports a growing body of research suggesting a safe and effective role for natural steroid hormones in treating postmenopausal breast cancer, with fewer detrimental side effects and improved health profile than with standard anti-hormone therapies. The study will be published in final format today in the open-access journal Reproductive Biology and Endocrinology.
Breast cancer is the most frequently diagnosed cancer in women in the United States. Approximately 70% of breast cancers are diagnosed in postmenopausal women. Major clinical trials and experimental studies showed that a class of anti-estrogen drugs called aromatase inhibitors is effective against postmenopausal breast cancer. Yet despite their effectiveness in reducing tumor recurrence, aromatase inhibitors have adverse effects on the cardiovascular system and increase osteoporosis and bone fractures, which may explain their lack of overall survival improvement versus the older treatment, tamoxifen. These effects, together with undesirable side effects such as incontinence and bone and joint pain, cause many women to discontinue using AIs. Alternatives are needed.
HORMONES: NOT ALL THE SAME
Ovarian Ablation Or Suppression
In women who have not yet experienced the menopause, oestrogen is produced by the ovaries.
Ovarian ablation or suppression stops the ovaries working and producing oestrogen.
Ablation can be done using surgery or radiotherapy. It permanently stops the ovaries from working and means you’ll experience the menopause early.
Ovarian suppression involves using a medicine called goserelin, which is a luteinising hormone-releasing hormone agonist .
Your periods will stop while you’re taking it, although they should start again once your treatment is complete.
If you’re approaching the menopause , your periods may not start again after you stop taking goserelin.
Goserelin comes as an injection you have once a month.
Follow Up Care After Breast Cancer Treatment
Many women are relieved or excited to be finished with breast cancer treatment. But it can also be a time of worry, being concerned about the cancer coming back, or feeling lost without seeing their cancer care team as often.
For some women with advanced breast cancer, the cancer may never go away completely. These women may continue to get treatments such as chemotherapy, hormone therapy, or other treatments to help keep the breast cancer under control and to help relieve symptoms from it. Learning to live with breast cancer that doesnt go away can have its own type of uncertainty.
Even if you have completed breast cancer treatment, your doctors will want to watch you closely. Its very important to go to all of your follow-up appointments. During these visits, your doctors will ask if you are having any problems, and will probably examine you. Lab tests and imaging tests arent typically needed after treatment for most early stage breast cancers, but they might be done in some women to look for signs of cancer or treatment side effects.
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Possible Side Effects Of Ais
The most common side effects of AIs are:
- Bone and joint pain
AIs tend to have side effects different from tamoxifen. They don’t cause uterine cancers and very rarely cause blood clots. They can, however, cause muscle pain and joint stiffness and/or pain. The joint pain may be similar to a feeling of having arthritis in many different joints at one time. Options for treating this side effect include, stopping the AI and then switching to a different AI, taking a medicine called duloxetine , or routine exercise with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs . But the muscle and joint pain has led some women to stop treatment. If this happens, most doctors recommend using tamoxifen to complete 5 to 10 years of hormone treatment.
Because AIs drastically lower the estrogen level in women after menopause, they can also cause bone thinning, sometimes leading to osteoporosis and even fractures. If you are taking an AI, your bone density may be tested regularly and you may also be given bisphosphonates or denosumab , to strengthen your bones.
If You Cant Have Surgery
Surgery is the main treatment for breast cancer, but some women have health problems that mean they cant have surgery. Some women choose not to have surgery.
In this case, if your breast cancer is oestrogen receptor positive, your doctor might recommend hormone therapy. This treatment won’t get rid of the cancer but can stop it growing or shrink it.
The treatment can often control the cancer for some time. Your doctor might change you to a different type of hormone treatment if your cancer starts growing again.
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Tamoxifen And Breast Cancer Prevention
A large study by the National Cancer Institute looked at whether tamoxifen lowered cases of breast cancer in healthy women who were known to be likely to get the disease. The results of the trial showed a 50% reduction in breast cancer in the women who took the drug.
Studies have also shown that tamoxifen lessens the risk of breast cancer returning in women who have had the earliest form of the disease, ductal carcinoma in situ .
Side Effects Of Hormone Therapy
Like any treatment, hormone therapy can cause side effects. Everyone reacts differently to drugs and some people have more side effects than others.
Side effects can often be managed and those described here will not affect everyone.
Some side effects are common to all hormone therapies, while others are specific to certain drugs. You can read about specific side effects on our individual drug pages .
If youre concerned about any side effects, whether or not they are listed here, talk to your treatment team as soon as possible.
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Is It Safe To Take Estrogen After Breast Cancer
Local estrogen therapy likely reduces the risk of breast cancer recurrence in breast cancer survivors considerably. But by how much is a difficult question to answer, for three reasons: More clinical studies are needed. Only a limited number of small studies have examined the effects of local estrogen therapy on breast cancer survivors.
Hormone Therapy For Reducing The Risk Of Breast Cancer
Women at moderate or high risk of breast cancer because of their family history may be offered hormone therapy to reduce their risk of developing breast cancer.
Drugs used to reduce the risk of breast cancer in women who have not had breast cancer include:
These drugs are usually taken for five years.
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How Is Hormone Therapy Used To Treat Breast Cancer
There are three main ways that hormone therapy is used to treat hormone-sensitive breast cancer:
Adjuvant therapy for early-stage breast cancer:Tamoxifen is FDA approved for adjuvant hormone treatment of premenopausal and postmenopausal women with ER-positive early-stage breast cancer, and the aromatase inhibitorsanastrozole, letrozole, and exemestane are approved for this use in postmenopausal women.
Research has shown that women who receive at least 5 years of adjuvant therapy with tamoxifen after having surgery for early-stage ER-positive breast cancer have reduced risks of breast cancer recurrence, including a new breast cancer in the other breast, and reduced risk of death at 15 years .
Until recently, most women who received adjuvant hormone therapy to reduce the chance of a breast cancer recurrence took tamoxifen every day for 5 years. However, with the introduction of newer hormone therapies , some of which have been compared with tamoxifen in clinical trials, additional approaches to hormone therapy have become common .
Some premenopausal women with early-stage ER-positive breast cancer may have ovarian suppression plus an aromatase inhibitor, which was found to have higher rates of freedom from recurrence than ovarian suppression plus tamoxifen or tamoxifen alone .
Men with early-stage ER-positive breast cancer who receive adjuvant therapy are usually treated first with tamoxifen. Those treated with an aromatase inhibitor usually also take a GnRH agonist.
How To Treat Hormone Sensitive Breast Cancer
Several strategies are used to treat hormone-sensitive breast cancer: Blocking ovarian function: Because the ovaries are the main source of estrogen in premenopausal women, estrogen levels in these women can be reduced by eliminating or suppressing ovarian function. Blocking ovarian function is called ovarian ablation.
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Hormone Therapy Can Cause Side Effects
Because hormone therapy blocks your bodys ability to produce hormones or interferes with how hormones behave, it can cause unwanted side effects. The side effects you have will depend on the type of hormone therapy you receive and how your body responds to it. People respond differently to the same treatment, so not everyone gets the same side effects. Some side effects also differ if you are a man or a woman.
Some common side effects for men who receive hormone therapy for prostate cancer include
Selective Estrogen Receptor Modulators
Also called SERMs, these drugs prevent breast cancer cells from binding to estrogen. SERMs block the effects of estrogen in breast tissue but not in other tissues within the body.
Traditionally, these drugs are usually used in premenopausal women. The most commonly used SERMs include:
- Tamoxifen . This medication blocks estrogen from binding to estrogen receptors on breast cancer cells. This helps stop the cancer from growing and dividing. People who take tamoxifen for 10 years following breast cancer treatment are less likely to have the cancer return and more likely to live longer than people who took the drug for only 5 years, according to the National Cancer Institute .
- Fulvestrant . This is an injected ER-blocking medication thats commonly used to treat advanced breast cancer. Unlike other SERMs, it blocks the effect of estrogen throughout the entire body. Fulvestrant is often used with other drugs such as palbociclib .
- Toremifene .This drug, which isnt commonly used in the United States, is only approved to treat HR-positive breast cancer in postmenopausal women thats spread to other parts of the body. It may not be beneficial for people whove had limited success using tamoxifen.
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What Hormones Are Used To Treat Breast Cancer
Hormone Therapy for Breast Cancer. Some types of breast cancer are affected by hormones, like estrogen and progesterone. The breast cancer cells have receptors that attach to estrogen and progesterone, which helps them grow. Treatments that stop these hormones from attaching to these receptors are called hormone or endocrine therapy.
Surgery To Stop The Ovaries From Working
This is also a type of ovarian ablation. You might choose to have an operation to remove your ovaries instead of having drug treatment to stop them working. You have this operation as keyhole surgery. It is called laparoscopic oophorectomy and you have it under general anaesthetic . You usually stay in hospital overnight.
The surgeon makes a number of small cuts into your tummy . They put a long bendy tube called a laparoscope into one of the cuts. The laparoscope connects to a video screen.
The surgeon puts small instruments through the other cuts to carry out the operation and remove the ovaries. They close the cuts with stitches and cover them with small dressings.
Removing your ovaries causes you to have a sudden menopause. The symptoms include hot flushes, sweating and mood swings.
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Does Taking The Combined Pill Increase The Risk Of Breast Cancer
Taking the combined pill will slightly increase the risk of breast cancer compared to people who are not taking it. But its important to remember that there are other things that have a bigger effect on breast cancer risk. For example, being overweight or obese increases the risk of breast cancer much more than taking the pill does.
When you stop taking the pill, your breast cancer risk stops increasing. About 10 years after stopping, a persons risk is no longer affected.
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How Hormone Therapy Works
Oestrogen and progesterone are hormones which are naturally produced in the human body. Before menopause, oestrogen is mostly produced by the ovaries. After menopause, when the ovaries are no longer active, a small amount continues to be produced in other tissues such as fat, muscle and adrenal glands.
Normal breast cells contain receptors that are able to recognise these hormones and allow them to access the cells, where they release signals encouraging growth and development. All breast cancers are tested for the presence of these oestrogen and progesterone receptors, using tissue taken at the time of biopsy or surgery. Approximately 70% of breast cancers retain these receptors, and rely on these hormones to grow. These hormone-sensitive cancers are described as oestrogen receptor positive and/or progesterone receptor positive .
Hormone therapy is also used to shrink or slow the growth of a breast cancer when surgery is not appropriate, for example in an older person with other major health issues. It is also used to help shrink advanced stage breast cancers or slow their growth.
Hormone therapy for breast cancer is not the same as HRT . HRT raises the level of oestrogen +/- progesterone in the body and is not used in the treatment of breast cancer.
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Less Common Types Of Hormone Therapy
Some other types of hormone therapy that were used more often in the past, but are rarely given now include:
- Megestrol acetate , a progesterone-like drug
- Androgens , like testosterone
These might be options if other forms of hormone therapy are no longer working, but they can often cause side effects.
What Are Hormone Receptors
Breast cancers that are hormone receptor positive have receptors for the female hormones oestrogen and/or progesterone on the inside of the cancer cells.
In breast cancer cells that are hormone receptor positive, oestrogen and/or progesterone, which are naturally produced in the body, make the cancer grow. You can think of it as the receptor being the lock and oestrogen being the key. The oestrogen fits into the receptor and switches the cancer cell on, causing it to grow. Hormone therapy for breast cancer can starve cancer cells by upsetting this process.
Testing for hormone receptors is part of the routine pathology testing following surgery. Testing is done on a core biopsy sample if surgery is not planned.
Your doctor will be able to tell you if your breast cancer is hormone receptor positive or not. Most, but not all breast cancer is hormone receptor positive.
The hormonal therapies described in this brochure only work against breast cancers that are hormone receptor positive. Other treatments need to be used for cancers that are hormone receptor negative.
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Having Hormonal Therapy For Breast Cancer
Hormonal therapy drugs reduce the risk of breast cancer coming back. It is important to take it for as long as you have been prescribed it for. Try to make taking it part of your daily routine so it becomes a habit.
Most women cope well with the side effects of hormonal therapy. They may be more of a problem in the first few months, but usually get better over time. If the side effects do not improve or are difficult to cope with, talk to your specialist nurse or cancer doctor. They can prescribe drugs to help and suggest ways of coping.
If you are still having problems after this, then your cancer doctor may suggest changing to a different type of hormonal therapy.
How Hormone Therapy Is Given
Hormone therapy may be given in many ways:
- Oral. Hormone therapy comes in pills that you swallow.
- Injection. The hormone therapy is given by a shot in a muscle in your arm, thigh, or hip, or right under the skin in the fatty part of your arm, leg, or belly.
- Surgery. You may have surgery to remove organs that produce hormones. In women, the ovaries are removed. In men, the testicles are removed.
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Benefits Of Hormone Therapies In Early And Locally Advanced Breast Cancer Treatment
Treatment with the hormone therapies tamoxifen and/or an aromatase inhibitor lowers the risk of :
- Breast cancer recurrence
- Breast cancer in the opposite breast
- Death from breast cancer
Premenopausal women who get ovarian suppression plus tamoxifen or an aromatase inhibitor may lower these risks more than premenopausal women who get tamoxifen or an aromatase inhibitor alone .
Learn more about tamoxifen.
Aromatase inhibitor plus androgen deprivation therapy
Turning Off The Ovaries With Medication
The ovaries can be shut down temporarily with medication. This is usually done by giving a course of monthly injections of goserelin . This gradually causes the levels of oestrogen to fall, which leads to temporary menopause.The menstrual periods stop and other symptoms of menopause may develop . These symptoms can be reversed. If the injections are stopped, the oestrogen levels and menstrual periods return to normal. Some women who are considering having their ovaries removed have these injections for a few months to test out the menopausal symptoms. They still have the choice of reversing the effect if the side effects are too intense. The use of goserelin is strictly controlled by the Australian Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and may not be available to all women.
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What Are Different Types Of Hormone Therapy
Of the five types of hormone therapy, the two most common are:
- Drugs that block estrogen receptors
- Treatments that lower estrogen levels
Three other types of hormone treatments that are rarely used now include:
- Increased risk of fracture