Definition and Overview
Hormonal cancers are types of cancers that are associated with the body’s hormonal production and regulation.
Hormones are the chemical messengers of the body that are produced and released into the bloodstream by certain organs known as glands, which make up the endocrine system. As signal molecules, they play a huge role in how certain cells function. Some of the most well-known hormones are:
Estrogen and progesterone – Known as the female hormones, estrogen is responsible for both the primary and secondary sexual attributes of women, which include breast development and the release of egg cells from the ovaries for fertilization. Progesterone, meanwhile, complements estrogen by maintaining pregnancy.
Insulin – Insulin is a hormone produced by the beta cells of the pancreas. Its job is to bring down the blood sugar levels by making sure it’s delivered and received by the cells, which then uses this sugar as fuel.
Cortisol – Sometimes called the stress hormone, it regulates different organs and body functions including raising the heart rate and blood pressure, as well as regulating immune response and glucose levels. The purpose of cortisol is to prepare the body for any threat, which normally happens when it senses it is under some stress.
Testosterone – These are male sex hormones that are responsible for the development of sexual characteristics.
The different hormones are interdependent, creating a very complex and dynamic performance of the body. For example, the follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), which is produced by the anterior pituitary gland of the brain, is necessary for the egg and follicle development before the body goes into the ovulation period. Cortisol, which comes from the adrenal cortex, works alongside adrenaline, which is from the adrenal medulla. Both the adrenal cortex and adrenal medulla make up the adrenal glands.
Causes of Condition
Because of the huge influence of the hormones in the function of cells, tissues, and organs in the body, they have to be produced by the glands in the most ideal level. Otherwise, imbalances occur. If there’s imbalance, certain conditions, some of which may be life-threatening in the long term, may manifest. For instance, if the body has a high level of stress hormones such as cortisol, the body may experience chronic inflammation. A number of studies have shown that chronic inflammation can eventually lead to organ damage and cellular changes in the long run, which will eventually promote cancer formation and proliferation.
Breast cancer is an example of hormonal cancer. Certain types of breast cancer like PR positive or ER positive mean that the cancer cells have receptors that respond to the level of these hormones. More than 80% of breast cancer cases are diagnosed as ER positive.
Estrogen is also being linked to the development of uterine or endometrial cancer, which forms on the lining of the uterine wall or the uterus itself.
Some cancer cells can also invade the glands, which can then affect the production and regulation of hormones. A number of diagnosed pituitary tumors can be malignant, for example, which can result in either a deficiency or excessive production of the hormones the gland produces. In one case, a teen developed an overwhelming appetite that caused her to become obese. However, upon medical evaluation, it was determined that she had a malignant tumor in the pituitary gland.
Aside from causes, hormonal cancers also have certain risk factors. These include the following:
Age – Many reproductive hormone-related cancers occur mostly in men and women who are 50 years old and above. Women, for example, undergo menopause, which can affect the production of the reproductive hormones particularly estrogen.
Obesity – Obesity is now being looked into as a possible trigger of hormonal cancers. Visceral fat or the fat that accumulates in the abdomen is believed to secrete its own hormones that can affect the production of the body’s regular hormones.
- Development of lumps in the affected organs (e.g., lumps in the thyroid)
- Growth of lymph nodes
- Increased or deficient hormone production that can be detected through blood panels
- Feeling of coldness
- Nausea and vomiting
- Sexual dysfunction
- Unexplained weight loss or weight gain
- Changes in sleep, mood, and appetite
- Changes in the skin
Note, however, that these key symptoms can also indicate other types of diseases. Further, just like other cancers, hormone-related cancers may not exhibit symptoms during the earliest stages.
Who to See and Treatments Available
Usually in the onset of symptoms, patients are referred to endocrinologists who specialize in problems affecting the hormones and the endocrine glands. They may be the one to request a biopsy or blood test to determine if the suspicious cells are malignant or benign. If they are malignant or cancerous, the patient is referred to an oncologist, preferably someone who sub-specializes in the specific hormone-related cancer.
Treatments can be similar to other types of cancer such as surgery to remove any cancerous tumor or the organ/gland. The main purpose is to prevent the growth and spread of cancer as much as possible. If there is still a trace of cancer, the patient then undergoes chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Hormonal therapy may also be considered particularly for patients who are not qualified to undergo surgical procedure due to their age, overall health condition, and the extent of cancer, among other factors. Hormonal therapy, which is a form of adjuvant therapy, suppresses the tumor or the production of hormones.
- American Cancer Society