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Hormone-blocking therapy

Hormone-blocking therapies are drugs used to treat hormone receptor positive breast cancer. 

Around two-thirds of breast cancers are hormone receptor positive, which means that they need female hormones (oestrogen and/or progesterone) to grow and reproduce. Most people with hormone receptor positive breast cancer will be offered hormone-blocking therapy (sometimes called endocrine therapy). 

Hormone-blocking therapy is given as an oral medication. For people with early breast cancer, it is usually recommended that it is taken daily for at least five years after the completion of your other breast cancer treatments (surgery, chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy). Research shows that taking hormone-blocking therapy for up to 10 years may further reduce the risk of breast cancer returning. Some people are now recommended 10 years of hormone-blocking treatment. 

For people with hormone receptor positive metastatic breast cancer, hormone-blocking therapy is used to help shrink or slow the growth of their cancer. It is usually taken for as long as it works. When a particular hormone-blocking therapy stops being effective, your treating doctor may usually recommend a different one. 

Tamoxifen is one of the best-known hormone-blocking therapy medications. It can be used to treat pre and post-menopausal people. Aromatase inhibitors such as anastrozole, letrozole and exemestane are also hormone-blocking therapies, however they are only suitable for people who have completed menopause. 

For people who are pre-menopausal, ovarian suppression treatment may be given in combination with oral hormone-blocking therapy. This may be necessary as oestrogen is mainly produced in the ovaries prior to menopause. Ovarian suppression can be in the form of monthly injections or surgery.  

Note: Hormone-blocking therapy used to treat breast cancer is not the same as hormone replacement therapy (HRT) used to manage the symptoms of menopause. 

How does hormone-blocking therapy work? 

Hormone-blocking therapy works by depriving breast cancer cells of the hormones that they use to grow. It is used to kill any breast cancer cells that might be present in the breast or elsewhere in the body. It has been found to be very effective in reducing the risk of the cancer spreading to other parts of the body, or of a new breast cancer developing in the same or other breast. 

Side effects 

Hormone-blocking therapy can have side effects, including: 

  • Menopausal symptoms such as hot flushes, night sweats, heart palpitations, weight gain, mood swings and reduced libido 
  • Anxiety 
  • Sleep disturbance 
  • Fatigue. 

Aromatase inhibitors can cause joint stiffness and pain as well as thinning and weakening of the bones. This can result in bone fractures and osteoporosis. Your doctor may recommend that you have a bone mineral density scan, called a DXA or DEXA scan, before starting your treatment. You may also have your calcium and Vitamin D levels checked. Sometimes you may be prescribed a bone strengthening medication to protect your bones from fractures.  More information is available on the Bone health page . 

If you are finding side effects of hormone-blocking therapy difficult to manage, talk to your medical oncologist. They may be able to give you some advice to help you manage side effects, or switch you to one of the other hormone-blocking therapy drugs. 

More information 

  • Find more information on hormone-blocking therapy, visit My Journey.
  • Join our online network if you think that talking to others online and sharing experiences will help. 
  • Westmead Breast Cancer Institute’s Hormone (Endocrine) treatment for breast cancer fact sheet can be viewed here.  
  • Read more about hormone blocking therapies on Cancer Australia's website.  

BCNA’s My Journey 

My Journey is where you go to get all your breast cancer information about your diagnosis in one place. Whether you have early breast cancer, DCIS or metastatic breast cancer, My Journey provides you with the latest information tailored to suit your situation. You can access this information through My Journey via an app or web browser at www.myjourney.org.au.