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Managing the Side Effects of Hormonal Therapy

Many women suffer from menopausal symptoms when taking hormone therapy. What you can do about it.

Hot flushes, night sweats, aches and pains, mood swings – hormone therapy for breast cancer can bring on these and other symptoms of the menopause. We have some tips on managing them and improving your quality of life.

 

Around 75 per cent of breast cancer tumours are stimulated by female sex hormones – mainly by oestrogen and sometimes, in part, by progestogens. Hormone-dependent cancers are therefore usually treated with anti-hormones. Depending on what medications are prescribed, they either block the effects of these sex hormones or prevent the ovaries from producing them.

The problem is that this brings many women into the menopause almost overnight – with all its accompanying symptoms, including hot flushes, joint pain, dry mucous membranes and mood swings. It can also cause menopause symptoms to come back in older women. The good news is that although the symptoms cannot be eliminated, there are tricks to help you cope with them.

 

What you can do about common menopausal symptoms

 

Hot flushes
Hot flushes and night sweats are among the most common complaints after breast cancer treatment. These can vary from happening a few times a day to several times an hour and from mild heat in the face to palpitations and drenching perspiration all over the body. They happen because the heat centre in the brain is dependent on oestrogen. When our oestrogen level drops, the nervous system causes the blood vessels in the skin to expand. As a result, the skin is supplied with more blood and the body releases excess heat to the outside – as a hot flush. The sweat then cools the skin, causing the body temperature to drop.

 

Things that can help:

 

Things to bear in mind:

 

Muscle and joint pain

The lower level of oestrogen in the body can also affect how minerals are absorbed, leading to an increased risk of osteoporosis and weaker bones. Aches and pains in muscles and joints can accompany this.

 

Things that can help:

 

Things to bear in mind:

 

Vaginal dryness

Among other things, oestrogen ensures that the mucous membrane of the vagina is well supplied with blood and becomes moist with sexual arousal. If the production of the hormone is stopped or blocked, it can cause vaginal dryness and irritation. This can make sexual intercourse uncomfortable and increase the risk of infections.

 

Things that can help:

 

Things to bear in mind:

 

Mood swings

It is not known exactly how oestrogen deficiency causes mood swings. It is believed that it disturbs the part of the brain – the limbic system – that is responsible for processing our emotions. This can result in emotional peaks, low moods and, for some women, depression.

 

Things that can help:

 

Things to bear in mind:

 

Useful Links:
Cancer Research UK: Breast Cancer and Menopausal Symptoms
Breast Cancer Care: Menopausal Symptoms and Breast Cancer pdf
Macmillan Cancer Care: Breast cancer and the menopause