What types of hormone therapy are used for breast cancer?

Several strategies have been developed to treat hormone-sensitive breast cancer, including the following:

Blocking ovarian function: Because the ovaries are the main source of estrogen in premenopausal women, estrogen levels in these women can be reduced by eliminating or suppressing ovarian function. Blocking ovarian function is called ovarian ablation.

Ovarian ablation can be done surgically in an operation to remove the ovaries (called oophorectomy) or by treatment with radiation. This type of ovarian ablation is usually permanent.

Alternatively, ovarian function can be suppressed temporarily by treatment with drugs called gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) agonists, which are also known as luteinizing hormone-releasing hormone (LH-RH) agonists. These medicines interfere with signals from the pituitary gland that stimulate the ovaries to produce estrogen.

Examples of ovarian suppression drugs that have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are goserelin (Zoladex®) and leuprolide (Lupron®).

Blocking estrogen production: Drugs called aromatase inhibitors can be used to block the activity of an enzyme called aromatase, which the body uses to make estrogen in the ovaries and in other tissues. Aromatase inhibitors are used primarily in postmenopausal women because the ovaries in premenopausal women produce too much aromatase for the inhibitors to block effectively. However, these drugs can be used in premenopausal women if they are given together with a drug that suppresses ovarian function.

Examples of aromatase inhibitors approved by the FDA are anastrozole (Arimidex®) and letrozole (Femara®), both of which temporarily inactivate aromatase, and exemestane (Aromasin®), which permanently inactivates the enzyme.

Blocking estrogen’s effects: Several types of drugs interfere with estrogen’s ability to stimulate the growth of breast cancer cells:

  • Selective estrogen receptor modulators (SERMs) bind to estrogen receptors, preventing estrogen from binding. Examples of SERMs approved by the FDA are tamoxifen (Nolvadex®), raloxifene (Evista®), and toremifene (Fareston®). Tamoxifen has been used for more than 30 years to treat hormone receptor-positive breast cancer. Because SERMs bind to estrogen receptors, they can potentially not only block estrogen activity (i.e., serve as estrogen antagonists) but also mimic estrogen effects (i.e., serve as estrogen agonists). Most SERMs behave as estrogen antagonists in some tissues and as estrogen agonists in other tissues. For example, tamoxifen blocks the effects of estrogen in breast tissue but acts like estrogen in the uterus and bone.
  • Other antiestrogen drugs, such as fulvestrant (Faslodex®), work in a somewhat different way to block estrogen’s effects. Like SERMs, fulvestrant attaches to the estrogen receptor and functions as an estrogen antagonist. However, unlike SERMs, fulvestrant has no estrogen agonist effects. It is a pure antiestrogen. In addition, when fulvestrant binds to the estrogen receptor, the receptor is targeted for destruction.