Hormones are the mysterious messengers in your body, traveling around and telling it what to do. From managing blood sugar levels to blood pressure, heart rate, energy, mood and when to go to sleep, your hormones are responsible for a lot. While many hormones are present in both men and women, sex hormones are unique to each gender.
For men, sex hormones, including testosterone, are called androgens. These hormones are responsible for the normal growth and development of boys into men – facial hair, bone density, muscle mass, fertility and even balding are all caused by androgens. The majority of male hormones are made in the testicles, while a small amount is made in the adrenal glands near the kidneys.
These hormones are important for a healthy, functioning male. Unfortunately, sometimes androgens can fuel prostate cancer and need to be reduced.
Treating Prostate Cancer With Hormone Therapy
Prostate cancer is the most common form of cancer in men in our region, accounting for nearly 30% of male cancer according to Samaritan Cancer Program’s 2018 Annual Cancer Report. It occurs when abnormal cells in the prostate gland reproduce and grow out of control to form tumors.
Treating prostate cancer may include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy or harnessing the power of hormones in hormone therapy.
“Some forms or prostate cancer are hormone-sensitive and one way we can slow the growth is by a treatment called androgen deprivation therapy,” says Layron Long, MD, from Journal of Urology analyzed 14 studies of men with prostate cancer and found that those who received androgen deprivation therapy (ADT) were at an increased risk of being diagnosed with dementia. The risk was greater for men who received treatment longer than 12 months.
According to Dr. Long, researchers are still working to understand why this happens, but it likely has something to do with fact that healthy testosterone levels help protect the brain and promote healthy cognitive function, while ADT reduces testosterone – even if only temporarily.
“Previous studies that looked at testosterone levels have found that lower testosterone is a risk factor for dementia and cardiovascular disease, but we don’t know why this happens or what the root cause is of low testosterone in otherwise healthy men,” he says.
Dr. Long notes that while some studies show there is a link between receiving ADT and an increased risk for dementia, the studies do not show that the treatment causes dementia, an important distinction.
Other possible side effects of ADT include an increased risk of developing metabolic syndrome, loss of bone mass, erectile dysfunction, weight gain and mood swings.
Hormone Treatment Side Effects & Benefits
ADT is just one form of hormone treatment for prostate cancer. While ADT blocks the testicles from making androgens, other treatments block the body from using androgens, or block the adrenal glands from making androgens in addition to the testicles. These options are usually explored with your cancer team once ADT has stopped working.
Side effects of non-ADT forms of hormone treatment include joint or muscle pain, high blood pressure and hot flashes.
When you talk with your doctor about cancer treatment, don’t be shy about asking questions so you understand what the risks are. Your current health and your personal risk factors can help you and your cancer team decide on the best treatment options for you.
Dr. Long reports that although there are side effects associated with hormone therapy, the benefits of successful cancer treatment often make treatment worthwhile.
“Any cancer treatment has risks and side effects, so we’re always striving to find a balance between what is treating the cancer and what your quality of life looks like,” says Dr. Long. “If we can catch it early, the survival rates for prostate cancer are very encouraging, so don’t put off screening.”
Prostate cancer often has no symptoms in its early stages. If you are age 50 or more, visit your primary care provider for a routine screening. You can learn more about prostate cancer and take a risk assessment in our health library.