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Hormone Treatment Fights Prostate Cancer

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WebMD Feature

Hormone therapy for prostate cancer has come a long way in the past few decades. Not so long ago, the only hormonal treatment for this disease was drastic: an orchiectomy, the surgical removal of the testicles.

Now we have a number of medications -- available as pills, injections, and implants -- that can give men the benefits of decreasing male hormone levels without irreversible surgery.

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"I think hormonal therapy has done wonders for men with prostate cancer," Stuart Holden, MD, Medical Director of the Prostate Cancer Foundation.

Hormone therapy for prostate cancer does have limitations. Right now, it's usually used only in men whose cancer has recurred or spread elsewhere in the body.

But even in cases where removing or killing the cancer isn't possible, hormone therapy can help slow down cancer growth. Though it isn't a cure, hormone therapy for prostate cancer can help men with prostate cancer feel better and add years to their lives.

On average, hormone therapy can stop the advance of cancer for two to three years. However, it varies from case to case. Some men do well on hormone therapy for much longer.

What Is Hormone Therapy?

The idea that hormones have an effect on prostate cancer is not new. The scientist Charles Huggins first established this over 60 years ago in work that led to his winning the Nobel Prize. Huggins found that removing one of the main sources of male hormones from the body -- the testicles -- could slow the growth of the disease.

"This procedure worked dramatically," says Holden, who is also director of the Prostate Cancer Center at Cedar Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. "Before, these men were confined to bed and wracked with pain. Almost immediately afterwards, they improved."

Huggins found that some types of prostate cancer cells need certain male hormones -- called androgens -- to grow. Androgens are responsible for male sexual characteristics, like facial hair, increased muscle mass, and a deep voice. Testosterone is one kind of androgen. About 90% to 95% of all androgens are made in the testicles, while the rest are made in the adrenal glands located on top of the kidneys.

How Does Hormone Therapy Work?

Hormone therapy for prostate cancer works by either preventing the body from making these androgens or by blocking their effects. Either way, the hormone levels drop, and the cancer's growth slows.

"Testosterone and other hormones are like fertilizer for cancer cells," Holden tells WebMD. "If you take them away, the cancer goes into shock, and some of the cells die."

In 85% to 90% of cases of advanced prostate cancer, hormone therapy can shrink the tumor.

However, hormone therapy for prostate cancer doesn't work forever. The problem is that not all cancer cells need hormones to grow. Over time, these cells that aren't reliant on hormones will spread. If this happens, hormone therapy won't help anymore, and your doctor will need to shift to a different treatment approach.

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