What Is Hormone Therapy

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 05/2023

Hormone therapy is a type of cancer treatment that removes, blocks, or adds specific hormones to the body. It is also called hormonal therapy, anti-hormonal therapy, or endocrine therapy.

Some types of cancer use the body's natural hormones to fuel their growth. It is important to know that hormone therapy for cancer treatment is not the same as menopausal hormone therapy (MHT) or hormone replacement therapy (HRT). These treatments are used to manage menopause symptoms. Learn more about menopausal hormone therapy.

This article is about the basics of hormone therapy for cancer treatment and the types of cancer it is used for. Like other cancer treatments, this approach can cause side effects. Learn more about the side effects of hormone therapy.

What are hormones?

Hormones are chemicals that help control the activity of certain cells or organs. They are naturally made by the body and move through the bloodstream. Activities that hormones help control include growth and development, sexual function, reproduction, mood, and how the body turns food into energy.

Hormones are made by glands. The major hormone-producing glands include the thyroid and parathyroid glands, adrenal glands, pancreas, ovaries, and testicles. These glands are part of the body's endocrine system, which consists of all hormones and the related glands in the body.

What does hormone therapy do?

Hormone therapies change the amount of hormones in your body in different ways. You may have tests to see if a cancer is sensitive to hormones. Your doctor may recommend hormone therapy to:

  • Prevent the body from making a hormone

  • Change how a hormone acts in the body

  • Block a hormone from binding to cancer cells

How is hormone therapy used to treat cancer?

Hormone therapy is used along with other types of cancer treatment, such as radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or surgery. Hormone therapy can also be used alone.

Hormone therapy can be used in different ways at different times. These include:

  • Before surgery and/or radiation therapy, to shrink a tumor. This is called neoadjuvant therapy.

  • After cancer treatments, to reduce the risk that cancer will come back. This is called adjuvant therapy.

  • For cancer that comes back after treatment, called recurrent cancer.

  • For cancer that has spread to other parts of the body, called metastatic cancer.

The goal of hormone therapy depends on the type of cancer and how far it has spread. Sometimes, the goal is to keep cancer from coming back after treatment. Or the goal may be to stop or slow cancer growth.

Hormone therapy may also be used to help prevent or manage cancer side effects. Relieving side effects is an important part of cancer care and treatment. This is called palliative and supportive care.

What types of cancer can be treated with hormone therapy?

Hormone levels can control several types of cancer. Common cancers that are treated with hormone therapy are:

Breast cancer. In many cases, breast cancer depends on the hormones estrogen and/or progesterone to grow. Tumors that have receptors that these hormones can bind to are called "hormone receptor positive." Blocking the hormones or lowering the amount of estrogen that your body makes can help prevent a recurrence or treat metastatic cancer. Learn about estrogen and progesterone receptor testing for breast cancer.

Prostate cancer. The growth of prostate cancer is usually driven by hormones called androgens. The most common androgen is testosterone. Lowering levels of androgen can help slow the growth of prostate cancer.

Thyroid cancer. People with thyroid cancer who are treated with surgery usually need thyroid hormone therapy. Thyroid hormone therapy replaces the hormone in the body and may slow down the growth of any remaining cancer cells.

Hormone therapy can also be recommended for other cancers that are less common. Examples include:

Adrenal cancer. An adrenal gland tumor may produce excess hormones. The doctor may prescribe various medications to control the levels of these hormones before, during, or after other treatments.

Neuroendocrine tumors. Hormone therapies may slow the growth of a neuroendocrine tumor (NET). They can also be used to control the symptoms created by the hormones a NET can release.

Pituitary gland tumor. A tumor in the pituitary gland can impact the gland's ability to make enough of important hormones that the body needs. Hormone therapy may be needed to replace these hormones.

Uterine cancer. The growth of certain types of uterine cancer cells that are sensitive to estrogen and progesterone can be slowed down with hormone therapy.

There are several types of hormone therapy that can be used alone or in combination to treat these and other hormone-sensitive cancers.

How is hormone therapy given?

Hormone therapy can be given in different ways. They include:

Oral hormone therapy. You can take some types of hormone therapy by mouth in a pill, capsule, or liquid form. Many oral hormone therapies can be prescribed by a doctor, picked up from a pharmacy, and then taken at home on a regular schedule. Talk with your health care team if you have any questions about the instructions for taking your medication at home.

Injected hormone therapy. This is when you receive hormone therapy using a needle. You may receive these shots in your arm, leg, hip, or belly. They may be given in a muscle or injected under the skin. Hormone injections may be given at a clinic or doctor's office. Your health care team may also teach you to do the injections at home.

Surgical ablation. Surgery to remove an organ that makes certain hormones is sometimes recommended. For example, the testicles may need to be removed to reduce testosterone levels as part of prostate cancer treatment. This procedure is called a bilateral orchiectomy. Another example is when the ovaries are surgically removed to stop estrogen production as part of breast cancer treatment. This is called ovarian ablation or bilateral oophorectomy. Surgical ablation is done in a hospital or a specialized medical center.

Your hormone therapy plan

The type of hormone therapy prescribed for you, the amount you take, and how often you take it depends on many factors. These include:

  • The type of cancer

  • The stage of cancer

  • The risk of cancer returning or how long it had been before the cancer returned

  • The type of cancer treatment you have already received or currently receive

  • Side effects that you experience

  • Whether or not menopause has occurred

Some people need hormone therapy for a short time. Other people will remain on hormone therapy for several years or the rest of their lives. Hormone therapy can be daily, monthly, yearly, or as needed.

For example, with certain types of breast cancer, people can take daily hormone therapy for 5 to 10 years. People with prostate cancer may have intermittent hormone therapy. This means the hormone therapy is stopped temporarily when it is not needed. After thyroid cancer treatment, hormone therapy is often a daily part of a person's life.

Talk with your health care team about why they recommend a specific hormone therapy plan for you and what to expect. This conversation should include possible side effects and the timeline for your hormone therapy plan.

Questions to ask the health care team

Consider asking your health care team the following questions about hormone therapy:

  • What type of hormone therapy do you recommend for me? Why?

  • What are the goals of this specific hormone therapy?

  • Will this hormone therapy be my only cancer treatment? If not, will it be given before, during, or after other cancer treatments?

  • How will I receive this hormone therapy, such as by pill or injection? How often?

  • If I will take my hormone therapy at home, what are some ways that can help me stay on schedule with taking it? What should I do if I miss a dose?

  • What are the possible side effects of this treatment in the short term?

  • Will this treatment affect my daily life? Will I be able to work, exercise, and do my usual activities?

  • What are the possible long-term effects of this treatment?

  • Could this treatment affect my sex life? If so, how and for how long?

  • Could this treatment affect my ability to have children? If so, should I talk with a fertility specialist before cancer treatment begins?

  • Who should I talk with about any side effects I experience? How soon?

  • Whom should I call with questions or problems?

  • How can I reach them during regular office hours? After hours?

  • How will we know if the hormone therapy is working?

  • Will I need any tests or scans before, during, or after hormone therapy?

  • Could the dose of my hormone therapy change over time?

  • How long will I need this hormone therapy?

Related Resources

Side Effects of Hormone Therapy

Safe Storage and Disposal of Cancer Medications

Drug Information Resources

More Information

National Cancer Institute: Hormone Therapy to Treat Cancer