What Are Hormone-Sensitive Cancers?

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, MS, DO on November 02, 2021
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.

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.