What is hormone therapy?

You might have hormone therapy for prostate cancer. Find out about when you have it and the possible side effects. 

What is hormone therapy?

Hormones occur naturally in your body. They control the growth and activity of normal cells. Testosterone is a male hormone mainly made by the testicles.

Prostate cancer usually depends on testosterone to grow. Hormone therapy blocks or lowers the amount of testosterone in the body.

Hormone therapy on its own doesn't cure prostate cancer. But it can lower the risk of an early prostate cancer coming back when you have it with other treatments. Or it can shrink an advanced prostate cancer or slow its growth.

When do you have hormone therapy?

Hormone therapy with radiotherapy

You have this if:

  • your cancer hasn’t spread to other parts of the body but is at a high risk of coming back, eg the cancer has grown through the covering (capsule) of your prostate
  • you have a very high prostatic specific antigen (PSA) level
  • you have a high Gleason score

You might have hormone therapy before, during and after radiotherapy.  Doctors usually recommend that you have the treatment for between 3 months and 3 years. How long depends on the risk of your cancer coming back and how many side effects you get.

Hormone therapy alone

You might also have hormone treatment if:

  • the cancer is too advanced to have treatment with the aim to cure it
  • you can’t have surgery or radiotherapy because of other health problems
  • you don’t want radiotherapy or surgery

You normally carry on taking hormone therapy for as long as it is working.  

Your doctor might suggest you have intermittent therapy. This is when you have breaks from treatment and have 3 monthly tests to check your PSA. You restart treatment again if your PSA rises above a certain level. 

With intermittent therapy, it's thought you might have fewer side effects. But there needs to be more research into this. 

Advanced cancer

Hormone therapy is a treatment for cancers that have spread to another part of the body. You might have it with chemotherapy such as docetaxel.

If your cancer comes back after treatment

Hormone therapy is also a treatment if your cancer comes back after having radiotherapy.

Types of hormone therapy

There are 3 main ways of having hormone therapy. They include: 

  • injections
  • tablets
  • surgery

Injections

The injections work by blocking messages from a gland in the brain that tell the testicles to produce testosterone.

Luteinising hormone-releasing hormone agonists (LHRH agonists)

A gland in the brain called the pituitary gland makes luteinising hormone (LH). This controls the amount of testosterone made by the testicles. LH blockers stop the production of luteinising hormone. So the testicles stop making testosterone.

At first, the injections may make your symptoms worse. This is called tumour flare. Your doctor might recommend you take an anti androgen tablet such as flutamide to stop the tumour flare. You usually take flutamide for the first 4 to 6 weeks of your treatment.

Types of LH blockers include:

  • leuprorelin (Prostap) – you have this every 4 weeks or 12 weeks
  • goserelin acetate (Zoladex) – you have this every 4 weeks or 12 weeks
  • buserelin (Suprefact) – you have this as an injection 3 times a day for 7 days and then a nasal spray 6 times a day
  • triptorelin (Decapeptyl) – you have this once a month, 3 monthly or 6 monthly

Tablets

Anti androgen tablets

These tablets stop testosterone made by your testicles getting to the cancer cells. Examples of anti androgens include:

  • bicalutamide (Casodex) – you take it once a day
  • flutamide (Drogenil) – 3 times a day
  • enzalutamide (Xtandi) – once a day
  • cyproterone acetate (Cyprostat) - 2 to 3 times a day 

Flutamide and bicalutamide are less likely to cause erection problems than leuprorelin (Prostap) or goserelin (Zoladex). But they are more likely to cause breast swelling and tenderness.

Enzalutamide is a treatment for men who have already had other types of hormone therapy and chemotherapy with docetaxel (Taxotere) that is no longer working.

Check what is the name of the hormone treatment with your doctor or nurse, then take a look at our A to Z list of cancer drugs.

Surgery to remove the testicles (orchidectomy)

Surgery to remove your testicles (orchidectomy) isn’t a common way of lowering the amount of testosterone you produce.

You usually only have surgery to remove your testicles if you need your testosterone reduced urgently. For example if your cancer has spread to your bones and is pressing on your spinal cord, your doctors might want to reduce the amount of testosterone quickly.

Your doctors might also suggest surgery as an option if you don't want to have injections or tablets. 

Checking your hormone therapy is working

You have regular blood tests to check the level of a protein called prostate specific antigen (PSA). PSA is a protein made by both normal and cancerous prostate cells. It is in the blood in small amounts in all men, unless you have had the prostate gland completely removed.

While the hormone therapy is working, the level of PSA should stay stable or may go down. But if prostate cancer starts to grow and develop, the level of PSA may go up. This is hormone resistant prostate cancer or castrate resistant prostate cancer. Then your doctor may need to change your treatment. They will discuss this with you

Side effects

Side effects of hormone therapy are due to the low levels of testosterone in your body. Many men find that the side effects are often worse at the start of treatment. They usually settle down after a few weeks or months.

Some side effects are common to all hormone therapies for prostate cancer. Others vary from drug to drug. You might not have all of these side effects.

The main side effects are:

  • difficulty getting an erection (impotence)
  • hot flushes and sweating
  • feeling tired and weak
  • breast tenderness
  • tumour flare

Side effects of long term treatment are:

  • weight gain
  • memory problems
  • mood swings and depression
  • bone thinning (osteoporosis)
  • risk of early heart failure
Last reviewed: 
02 Jul 2019
  • Cancer: Principles and practice of oncology (10th edition)
    VT De Vita, TS Lawrence and SA Rosenberg
    Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins, 2015    

  • Intermittent androgen-deprivation therapy in prostate cancer: a critical review focused on phase 3 trials
    A Sciarra and others
    European Journal of Urology, 2013. Volume 64

  • Multi-disciplinary Team (MDT) Guidance for Managing Prostate Cancer
    British Uro-oncology Group (BUG) and the British Association of Urological Surgeons (BAUS) Section of Oncology, 2013

  • Prostate cancer: diagnosis and management
    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, 2019

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