Hormones are chemical messengers that tell other parts of your body what to do. Examples of hormones are insulin produced in the pancreas which regulates sugar levels, and sexual and reproductive hormones like estrogen and progesterone which are produced in the ovaries, and testosterone produced in the male testes. The adrenal glands also produce smaller amounts of all three in both men and women.
Other hormones regulate digestion and metabolism, bone and heart rate, body temperature, stress, mood, and sleep.
When hormones become imbalanced, they can cause all kinds of health problems like sleep disorders, headaches, anxiety and depression, reduced sex drive, heart issues, and even infertility.
Many things may contribute to a hormone imbalance including poor diet, chronic stress, diabetes, and inflammation.
But what about cancer?
Cancers Caused by Excess Hormones
Certain cancers are what they call hormone receptive or hormone-sensitive, meaning that they feed on hormones like estrogen or progesterone. Nearly 80% of all breast cancers are either estrogen positive (ER+), progesterone positive (PR+), or both. Ovarian cancer and uterine cancer can also be hormone receptive.
In these types of cancers, your hormones feed the cancer cells which grow and multiply. Your oncologist may prescribe hormone therapy to lower your levels of estrogen or progesterone in order to slow or stop the cancer cells. Hormone therapy is not the same as hormone replacement therapy for menopausal women, which can actually contribute to these types of cancer.
Menopausal women are more prone to hormone receptive cancers, as are obese women. Fat cells produce estrogen as well as the ovaries and excess fat can cause estrogen dominance, which can lead to a hormone imbalance.
What Cancer Does to Your Hormones
Any type of cancer that either involves the endocrine system, like thyroid or pancreatic cancer, or reproductive system cancers, like ovarian or breast cancer, can affect hormone levels and cause an imbalance.
Hormone imbalances may cause many disruptive symptoms like headaches, irregular periods, indigestion, sleeping problems, osteoporosis, unexplained changes in weight, anxiety, or depression, or changes in sexual health. Your symptoms will depend on which hormones are involved.
If you’ve been diagnosed with cancer and you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, speak with your physician about a possible hormone imbalance.
How Does Chemotherapy Affect Your Hormones?
Chemotherapy kills not only cancer cells, but healthy cells as well. Typical side-effects of chemotherapy include temporarily losing your hair, nausea and vomiting, fatigue, and loss of appetite. Most are temporary while you’re undergoing chemo, but some can appear later or become permanent like nerve damage, heart or kidney problems and even infertility.
You may also experience changes to sexual health due to the created hormonal imbalance from the chemotherapy drugs. Many experience symptoms similar to menopause, as estrogen and progesterone levels are affected by the chemotherapy drugs. Symptoms can be temporary, or actually bring on menopause if hormone production is halted. This is usually to damage to the ovaries caused by treatment.
Hormonal changes include vaginal dryness, hot flashes, lower libido, and bladder leaks caused by a weakened pelvic floor.
Talk to your doctor is your chemotherapy treatment is causing any symptoms of menopause, or if you plan on having a family after treatment. They can alter treatment which can help with symptoms.
What Can Your Do About Your Cancer-Caused Hormone Imbalance?
Besides any hormone treatment that your doctor recommends, lifestyle changes can help with hormonal imbalance. Maintaining a healthy weight or losing weight if you’re obese is probably the most important thing you can do. It is also helpful to eat a healthy diet including lean protein, healthy fats and plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables.
You may be able to take natural hormonal supplements but talk to your oncologist before taking any over the counter medication or supplement, as they may interfere with your treatment.
Speak with your doctor about any symptoms you’re having, even sexual, so they can come up with the proper treatment plan.