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Hormonal Therapy for Breast Cancer

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Blocking Cancer Growth

Breast cancer can grow as a result of estrogen and fat tissue in a woman's body. Estrogen is a hormone produced primarily by the ovaries.

Hormonal therapy, sometimes called "anti-estrogen therapy," uses medicine to reduce the risk of hormone receptor-positive breast cancer from recurring or a new breast cancer from developing.

A hormone receptor is a structure where the hormones attach to cause changes in a cell.

  • Hormone receptor-positive breast cancer: A type of cancer where the cancer cells use hormones to grow.

  • Hormone receptor-negative breast cancer: A type of cancer where the cancer cells do not use hormones to grow.

Hormonal therapy is useful to manage tumors that test positive for either estrogen receptors (ER) or progesterone receptors (PR). These tumors use hormones to fuel their growth. Blocking the hormones usually limits the growth of these types of tumors.

How Hormonal Therapy Works

There are several approaches doctors use to block the effects of estrogen or to lower the levels. These approaches are divided into 3 main groups:

  • Drugs that block the effect of estrogen on cancer cells, called anti-estrogens, such as tamoxifen. These medicines have no effect on estrogen levels; instead, they prevent estrogen from causing the breast cancer cells to grow.

  • Drugs that lower the production of estrogen in the body, such as aromatase inhibitors.

  • Ovarian suppression or shutdown to prevent the ovaries from producing hormones.

Appropriate Patients for Hormonal Therapy

Hormonal treatments for breast cancer are used for women who:

  • Are at high risk, but have not had breast cancer
  • Had non-invasive breast cancer (DCIS) and want to reduce the risk of recurrence and a new breast cancer
  • Have hormone receptor-positive breast cancer that appears to have been completely removed by surgery (Hormonal therapy is used as adjuvant therapy to get rid of any remaining breast cancer cells. It may be used alone or in combination with chemotherapy.)
  • Have invasive breast cancer and need to shrink a large tumor before surgery or radiation
  • Have cancer that remains after surgery or cancer that has recurred (come back)
  • Have advanced disease

Hormone drugs are only effective in women whose cancer has the estrogen or progesterone receptor. Every breast cancer is tested for these receptors and your physician will share these results with you. If the cancer is negative for both these receptors, you will not benefit from the treatment.

Hormonal therapy is not the same as hormone replacement therapy (HRT), which is given during or following menopause (not for cancer treatment). HRT should not be given to women with breast cancer as it is considered unsafe.

For more information about breast cancer treatment and prevention at Fox Chase Cancer Center or to make an appointment, call 1-888-FOX CHASE (1-888-369-2427). The breast cancer scheduling department can be reached at 215-728-3001.

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