Hormone therapy is a type of cancer treatment that removes, blocks, or adds a specific hormone to stop or slow the growth of cancer cells. It is also called hormonal therapy, anti-hormonal therapy, or endocrine therapy. Like other cancer treatments, hormone therapy can cause side effects. Side effects can be different for each person. The side effects of this treatment can depend on many factors, including:
Type of hormone therapy
How much medication you receive, called a dose
How your body absorbs the medication
Your health care team can help you manage side effects. This is called palliative and supportive care. It helps people with any stage of cancer feel better. Before hormone therapy begins, talk with your doctor about the possible side effects of your specific treatment plan and how they may be relieved or managed.
This article is about the common side effects of hormone therapy for cancer treatment. Learn more about the basics of hormone therapy.
Why does hormone therapy cause side effects?
Hormones are chemicals created in the body that control the activity of certain cells or organs. They move through the bloodstream. Changes to the amount of a hormone in your body can affect what that hormone controls and can cause specific side effects. Some hormones affect body functions, so hormone therapy can cause many different side effects.
Managing the side effects of hormone therapy
Before hormone therapy begins, talk with your doctor about what side effects could happen and how they can be managed. Ask questions about anything that is unclear to you. This will help you feel more prepared.
Let your health care team know about any new or worsening medical problems as soon as possible. This is important to do even if you do not think your symptoms are serious or related to hormone therapy. Tracking side effects can make getting the relief you need easier. One way to track side effects is using the free Cancer.Net Mobile app. You can securely record when side effects happen and their severity. Or, you can keep a written journal. Tracking side effects means you can easily share these details with your health care team to describe your experience.
General side effects of hormone therapy
Many side effects depend on which type of treatment or drug you receive. For example, treatments that keep the body from making or using the hormone estrogen may cause symptoms commonly seen with menopause.
Here is a general list of possible side effects from hormone therapy. These side effects can vary from person to person, even on the same prescription. It is important to note that you should talk to your health care team about what is common based on your prescription.
Sexual health concerns. Hormone therapy can cause low sex drive and problems reaching an orgasm. It can also cause erectile dysfunction, which is the inability to get or keep a penile erection. Learn more about managing sexual health during treatment.
Vaginal and menstruation changes. Hormone therapy side effects can include vaginal dryness, discharge, itching, or irritation. It can also cause changes to the menstrual cycle and cause vaginal bleeding that is not related to a period.
Hot flashes and night sweats. Hot flashes are very common for people receiving hormone therapy. For example, up to 75% of patients receiving hormone therapy for prostate cancer have hot flashes. Night sweats are also common. Learn more about managing hot flashes in women and managing hot flashes in men.
Weight changes. Decreases in hormone levels can increase fat, decrease muscle, and make it harder to burn calories. This can lead to the growth of male breast tissue. This is called gynecomastia. Learn more about weight gain during treatment. Also, higher amounts of some hormones, such as thyroid hormone, can cause weight loss.
Bone health risk. Certain types of hormone therapies can cause osteoporosis, which is thinning of the bones. This makes bones more fragile and, in some cases, more likely to fracture or break. Learn more about managing osteoporosis.
Mood changes. These can include depression or mood swings. Learn more about managing depression during treatment.
Fatigue. Hormone therapy may cause fatigue. The medical term for this is cancer-related fatigue. It is a feeling of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion, even if you are getting enough rest and sleep. Learn more about managing fatigue.
Gastrointestinal symptoms. Your gastrointestinal (GI) tract plays a central role in digesting food and liquid and in processing waste. Hormone therapy can cause GI symptoms such as constipation, which means stools are less frequent or hard to pass. Other symptoms include nausea and vomiting and diarrhea.
Changes in thinking and memory. Some people may have trouble thinking or remembering things during hormone therapy. Doctors call these "cognitive problems." Learn more about managing thinking and memory problems during cancer treatment.
Infertility. Surgical hormone therapy can permanently affect fertility. Fertility is the biological ability to have a child. If fertility is a concern for you, talk with your doctor about fertility preservation options before treatment begins. Learn more about fertility concerns and preservation during cancer.
Higher risk for other health issues. Certain hormone therapies increase the risk for other health concerns. They can include blood clots, stroke, cataracts, and heart attacks. They can also increase the risk for uterine cancer. Learn more about what to do when cancer is not your only health concern.
It is important to note that there can be other side effects of hormone therapy that are not listed here. Talk with your health care team about your specific prescription, including what side effects you can expect, how they can be managed, who to contact on your health care team, and what to do if you have unexpected side effects. For example, it may be helpful to talk with a registered dietitian about gastrointestinal-related side effects. Learn more about managing physical side effects from cancer treatment.
Follow-up care after hormone therapy
Some side effects go away when treatment ends. Other effects can last beyond the treatment period, while others may appear months or years later. Your health care team can help you watch for and managing long-term side effects. This is an main focus of your follow-up care.
It is important to receive follow-up care during and after your hormone therapy treatment. Your follow-up care might include regular physical examinations, medical tests, or both. Ask your doctor what follow-up tests and exams you will need and how often. This is called a survivorship care plan.
Questions to ask the health care team
What side effects are common from the hormone therapy you are recommending for my cancer treatment?
When is it likely that side effects will occur? How often?
How long will side effects last? Could any of them be permanent?
Is there anything I can do to prepare for these side effects?
What can the health care team do to prevent or relieve side effects?
Who should I tell if I begin experiencing side effects from hormone therapy? How soon?
What side effects should I treat as an emergency? What should I do if I experience an urgent side effect?
Who do I contact if I have questions about specific side effects?
How can I reach them during regular business hours? After hours?
Are there any support groups you can recommend to help cope with the fear of side effects?
Are there other ways I can cope with my fears about the effects of treatment?
Can you recommend a social worker, counselor, or palliative and supportive care specialist for me to talk with?