Hormonal therapy

What is hormonal therapy?

Hormonal therapy is a treatment option for locally-advanced prostate cancer. It aims to stop the growth of the tumour.

The growth of prostate cancer cells is dependent on male sex hormones called androgens. Testosterone is the most important androgen. Androgens are mainly produced in the testicles. Hormonal therapy either stops the production or blocks the action of androgens. This is known as castration.

Another name for hormonal therapy is androgen deprivation therapy (ADT). It can be performed surgically or with drug treatment. In surgical therapy, both testicles are removed in a procedure called bilateral orchiectomy. The surgery is generally done under local anaesthesia. Drug therapy to stop the production of androgens includes LHRH agonists and LHRH antagonists. These drugs are available as depot injections right under the skin or into the muscle. Anti-androgens are drugs that block the action of androgens. They come as a pill. All of these therapies cause castration.

Castration has physical and emotional consequences. The most common are hot flushes, lower sex drive, and erectile dysfunction. The effects of surgical castration are permanent. In chemical castration, some of the symptoms may disappear after the treatment. Do not hesitate to discuss any concerns with your doctor.

In locally-advanced prostate cancer the standard treatment to cure the disease is hormonal therapy in combination with radiation therapy.

Bilateral orchiectomy

Bilateral orchiectomy, or surgical castration, is a surgery to remove both testicles and aims to stop the production of androgens. The surgery can be done under local anaesthesia. If you have a history of cardiovascular disease, your doctor may advise you to see a cardiologist before starting with hormonal drug therapy.

How is bilateral orchiectomy performed?

During surgery, you will lie on your back. You generally receive local or spinal anaesthesia. In some cases, your doctor may recommend general anaesthesia. The surgeon makes an incision in the scrotum to remove both testicles. Because the tissue that surrounds the testicles is not removed, the scrotum will not look totally empty.

How do I prepare for the procedure?

Your doctor will advise you in detail about how to prepare for the procedure. If you need general anaesthesia, you must not eat, drink, or smoke at least for 6 hours before surgery. If you are taking any prescribed medication, discuss it with your doctor. You may need to stop taking it several days before surgery. Your doctor will advise you on when you can start taking it again.

What are the side effects of bilateral orchiectomy?

Complications after a bilateral orchiectomy are rare and include pain around the scrotum, bleeding, infection, or delayed healing of the wound. In most cases, the way the scrotum looks will not be affected by the surgery.

Recommendations for 2-3 weeks after the surgery:

  • Avoid heavy exercise
  • Avoid hot baths
  • Avoid the sauna

You have to see your doctor or go back to the hospital if you:

  • Develop a fever
  • Have severe pain
  • Notice that the wound starts to bleed or leak a transparent fluid

Bilateral orchiectomy results in permanent castration. This has physical and emotional consequences. Do not hesitate to discuss any concerns with your doctor. Together you can decide if other treatment options are more suitable for you.

Chemical castration

If you prefer not to undergo surgical hormonal therapy, there are drugs which can stop the production of androgens. The most common drugs are LHRH agonists and LHRH antagonists. The aim of these drugs is to stop the growth of the tumour by chemical castration. How they do this varies for each group of drugs. Each drug is different in how it is applied. If you have a history of cardiovascular disease, your doctor will advise you to see a cardiologist before starting with hormonal drug therapy.

LHRH

The production of testosterone is regulated by the brain. The brain produces several hormones which help regulate other hormones. These are called releasing hormones. The specific releasing hormones of androgens are called luteinizing-hormone releasing hormones (LHRH). In prostate cancer treatment, drugs that affect LHRH are used to stop the production of androgens.

LHRH agonists

LHRH agonists stop testosterone production in the testicles. They are administered as a depot injection right under the skin or into the muscle. These injections can last for 1, 3, 6 or 12 months. Discuss with your doctor which option is best for you.

In the first days after the first injection, LHRH agonists increase your testosterone level before they decrease it. This is known as a flare. The increase in testosterone level can cause the tumour to swell. In rare cases, this could be dangerous and can cause difficulties urinating. Your doctor might give you a low dose of anti-androgen drugs to prevent damage from rising testosterone levels.

LHRH antagonists

LHRH antagonists are a new form of hormonal drug therapy. They do not need to be combined with an anti-androgen for the first weeks because they do not cause a flare. Degarelix is the most commonly used LHRH antagonist. It needs to be administered every month by injection under the skin.

Anti-androgens

Anti-androgens block the action of testosterone. As a result, the tumour will grow slower or stop growing completely. The most commonly used anti-androgens are cyproterone acetate, flutamide, and bicalutamide. They all come as a pill, and are taken every day.

Cyproterone acetate is usually administered in two or three daily dosages. Flutamide is administered three times a day. Bicalutamide is the most common anti-androgen, and it is taken once a day.

What are the side effects of hormonal therapy?

Hormonal therapy stops the production or blocks the action of male hormones, and causes castration. Your body can react to castration in different ways. The most common side effects of castration are:

  • Hot flushes
  • Lower sex drive
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Osteoporosis
  • Increased risk of heart disease
  • Diabetes

You could also experience pain, for example in your joints, your back, your bones, or muscles.

Changing hormone levels can affect your blood and cause high blood pressure, dizziness, and bruising. You may also be at higher risk of infection, especially in the nose or throat, or urinary tract infections.

Loss of appetite and weight loss can also be a result of castration. These may be related to diarrhoea, constipation or vomiting caused by the hormone changes.

Other side effects may include coughing, shortness of breath, headaches, and peripheral oedema.

The different treatments may cause side effects as well. LHRH antagonists may cause an allergic reaction. Anti-androgens may cause swelling of your breasts. This is called gynecomastia and can be painful in some cases. To prevent gynecomastia your doctor may recommend radiation therapy of your chest before the start of the hormonal therapy. In rare cases, you may need surgery to remove the mammary glands. Anti-androgens could worsen hot flushes. These can be treated with low-dose oestrogen therapy. Oestrogens can increase the risk of heart disease. Flutamide can cause diarrhoea.

How bothersome the side effects of hormonal therapy are, and when they appear, varies from person to person. This is related to your general health and the type of treatment you get.

With time, prostate cancer cells become resistant to hormonal therapy, and the cancer will start to grow again. This is known as castration-resistant prostate cancer. How long this takes to develop varies from person to person.

Follow up

What will the follow-up be like?

It is generally recommended to visit your doctor every 3 months after you start hormonal therapy, to monitor the disease. Each visit includes a physical examination and a PSA test. These tests are used to see how you are responding to the treatment. During these visits you can discuss with your doctor if there is a treatment option to manage side effects. Your doctor will adjust the follow-up visits according to your needs.

In need of support?

The European Prostate Cancer Coalition is a global collaboration of patient organisations dedicated to prostate cancer patients.

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