What Are Hormone-Sensitive Cancers?

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. 

Types of Hormone-Sensitive Cancer

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.

How Do I Know If My Cancer Is Hormone-Sensitive?

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.

Treatment for Hormone-Sensitive Cancers

Once your doctor knows that you have this type of cancer, she 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 her main source of estrogen.
  • You can take medicine to stop your body from making certain hormones.

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 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.
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Traci C. Johnson, MD on October 12, 2019

Sources

SOURCES:

U.S. National Library of Medicine: “Hormones.”

Cancer Research UK: “Hormone therapy for cancer.”

National Cancer Institute: “Hormone Therapy,” “Hormone Therapy for Breast Cancer,” “Hormone Therapy for Prostate Cancer.”

American Cancer Society: “Understanding Hormone Therapy,” “Hormone Therapy for Breast Cancer,” “Hormone Therapy for Ovarian Cancer,” “Hormone Therapy for Endometrial Cancer,” “Hormone Therapy for Prostate Cancer,” “Tamoxifen and Raloxifene for Lowering Breast Cancer Risk,” “Breast Cancer Hormone Receptor Status.”

National Comprehensive Cancer Network: “Targeted Therapy.”

Breastcancer.org: "Understanding Hormone Receptors and What They Do."

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