Hormone Therapy in Breast Cancer

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This fact sheet teaches patients how hormone therapy can help stop the growth of hormone-sensitive breast cancer tumors.
This fact sheet teaches patients how hormone therapy can help stop the growth of hormone-sensitive breast cancer tumors.

What are hormones?

Hormones are substances that function as chemical messengers in the body. They affect the actions of cells and tissues at various locations in the body, often reaching their targets through the bloodstream.

The hormones estrogen and progesterone are produced by the ovaries in premenopausal women and by some other tissues, including fat and skin, in both premenopausal and postmenopausal women. Estrogen promotes the development and maintenance of female sex characteristics and the growth of long bones. Progesterone plays a role in the menstrual cycle and pregnancy.

Estrogen and progesterone can also promote the growth of some breast cancers, which are called hormone-sensitive (or hormone-dependent) breast cancers.

How do hormones stimulate the growth of breast cancer?

Hormone-sensitive breast cancer cells contain proteins known as hormone receptors that become activated when hormones bind to them. The activated receptors cause changes in the expression of specific genes, which can lead to the stimulation of cell growth.

To determine whether breast cancer cells contain hormone receptors, doctors test samples of tumor tissue that have been removed by surgery. If the tumor cells contain estrogen receptors, the cancer is called estrogen receptor-positive (ER-positive), estrogen-sensitive, or estrogen-responsive. Similarly, if the tumor cells contain progesterone receptors, the cancer is called progesterone receptor-positive (PR- or PgR-positive). Approximately 70 percent of breast cancers are ER-positive. Most ER-positive breast cancers are also PR-positive (1).

Breast cancers that lack estrogen receptors are called estrogen receptor-negative (ER-negative). These tumors are estrogen-insensitive, meaning that they do not use estrogen to grow. Breast tumors that lack progesterone receptors are called progesterone receptor-negative (PR- or PgR-negative).

What is hormone therapy?

Hormone therapy (also called hormonal therapy, hormone treatment, or endocrine therapy) slows or stops the growth of hormone-sensitive tumors by blocking the body's ability to produce hormones or by interfering with hormone action. Tumors that are hormone-insensitive do not respond to hormone therapy.

Hormone therapy for breast cancer is not the same as menopausal hormone therapy or female hormone replacement therapy, in which hormones are given to reduce the symptoms of menopause.

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