What Are Hormone-Sensitive Cancers?

Medically Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on February 21, 2024
2 min read

Hormones are key to a lot of the work your body does. These natural chemicals affect everything from menopause to metabolism to your mood.

But they’re also useful to some types of cancer -- they help some tumors grow and spread. These kinds are called hormone-sensitive or hormone-dependent.

When a tumor is hormone-sensitive, its cells have proteins on their surfaces called receptors. They link to hormones like a lock and key. When the hormone “key” opens the “lock” of the receptor, the cancer cell grows and spreads. 

Not all cancers are fueled by hormones. But a few types can be, such as:

It’s important to know whether or not your cancer is hormone-sensitive. That affects how your doctor will treat it.

Your doctor can find out by testing your cancer’s cells. They’ll take a small piece of your tumor, called a biopsy. It goes to a lab for testing. The lab technician will use a microscope to look at the cells in the sample. If they see a lot of receptors on them, that means your tumor is hormone-sensitive.

Once your doctor knows that you have this type of cancer, they may recommend treatment with hormone therapy. There are a few types, and they work in different ways:

  • Some treatments can block the receptors on your cancer cells. That prevents the cancer from using the hormones.
  • Surgery can take out the part of your body that makes the hormone that’s fueling your tumor. For example, taking out a woman’s ovaries before menopause takes away their main source of estrogen.
  • You can take medicine to stop your body from making certain hormones. Men with prostate cancer may be given medication that reduces their testosterone level to nearly zero.

You may get hormone therapy along with other cancer treatments. The type you need depends on:

  • The kind of cancer you have
  • If it has spread
  • How far it has spread
  • For women, whether you’ve been through menopause

Besides treatment, doctors use hormone therapy for some types of cancer in a few other ways:

  • It can help keep you from getting cancer. Some women with higher chances for breast cancer might choose to use hormone therapy to lower their odds.
  • It can control the growth and spread of cancer.
  • It can help keep the disease from coming back after treatment.