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Managing side effects from hormone therapy

Hormone therapy is a form of treatment for cancers that use hormones to grow, including breast cancer and prostate cancer. Like other forms of cancer treatment—such as chemotherapy, radiation therapy, immunotherapy and surgery—hormone therapy can cause side effects.

“There are certain cancers in men and women that are driven to grow by specific hormones,” says Sandy Pyle, RN, an oncology nurse navigator at the Loran Smith Center for Cancer Support at Piedmont Athens Regional. “Approximately 80 to 85% of breast cancers are driven to grow by estrogen and progesterone. For men, testosterone is responsible for prostate cancer and its growth.”

How does hormone therapy work?

Hormone therapy is used to either block the production of certain hormones or change how those hormones behave in the body.

“We either don’t want the hormones to attach to the cancer cells or we want to shut off the production of those hormones,” says Pyle.

Hormone therapy can be given through a pill or an injection. Surgery may also be necessary. For example, a person’s ovaries may be removed to stop the ovaries’ estrogen production in the body.

People with specific types of breast cancer may need to take hormone therapy daily for five to 10 years. People with prostate cancer may require intermittent treatment.

What are the potential side effects?

“Side effects will vary by person,” says Pyle. “Some people on hormone therapy don’t have any side effects. Others have pretty significant side effects. For a lot of women, it’s like going through menopause squared.”

Symptoms in women can include:

  • Hot flashes

  • Vaginal dryness

  • Bone and joint pain

  • Loss of interest in sex

  • Depression

  • Nausea

  • Changes in menstrual cycle (if you haven’t gone through menopause)

If you’ve already gone through menopause, hormone-blocking therapy can bring back perimenopause symptoms.

For men, symptoms can include:

  • Decreased libido (sex drive)

  • Sexual dysfunction

  • Nausea

  • Fatigue

  • Diarrhea

  • Hot flashes

  • Weakened bones

  • Decrease in muscle mass

  • Memory problems

  • Depression

Unfortunately, most people continue to have symptoms as long as they’re on the hormone-blocking therapy. However, there are ways to manage your symptoms to improve your quality of life.

How to manage side effects from hormone therapy

To manage the side effects of hormone therapy, Pyle recommends prioritizing nutrition, exercise and sleep to help establish a baseline of good overall health.

To address the common symptoms of anxiety and depression, she suggests meditation and mindfulness practices.

“Research also shows that meditation and mindfulness can help minimize the effects of depression and anxiety,” says Pyle. “I recommend carving out five minutes in your day for a mindfulness practice like meditation, breathwork or guided imagery. There are so many apps out there that can help with your mindfulness practice.”

If you experience memory loss or brain fog, she suggests:

  • Trying games and puzzles designed to boost brain health

  • Learning a new language

  • Learning a new musical instrument

“These activities challenge different areas of your brain and can help with fogginess,” she says.

Seeking support is also an essential component of managing side effects.

“Find a support group with other people who may be experiencing the same symptoms,” says Pyle. “I often hear from support group participants that they’re so happy they came and don’t feel alone anymore.”

Talking to a counselor or therapist can also be incredibly beneficial.

In some cases, medications may be needed to treat depression, anxiety and joint and bone pain.

When to talk to your health care provider

“If you’re having symptoms that are bothersome and interfere with your quality of life, talk to your doctor,” says Pyle.

If a medication becomes intolerable, talk to your doctor or nurse before you stop treatment on your own. Your provider may recommend trying a different medication in the same class or taking your medication at a different time of day.

“Don’t be afraid to reach out and talk to your doctor about any issues you may be having,” she says. “Sexual side effects, in particular, can be hard to talk about, but that’s why we’re here. We want you to have the highest quality of life you desire.”

Learn more about cancer prevention, wellness and treatment.

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