If you are taking an oral anti-hormonal agent (e.g. tamoxifen, anastrozole, letrozole, exemestane, etc) for breast cancer, chances are you have heard horror stories about the side effects. While some women struggle with a variety of negative effects (ranging from annoying to life threatening), other women don’t notice any side effects at all. But what you really care about is, what is going to happen to you?! Will you be one of the lucky ones or will you struggle through? What side effects are most common? Which are the most serious?
Will YOU experience side effects?
Unfortunately, there is no way to know if you will experience side effects from these drugs. It’s frustrating but the only way to know (for sure) if you are going to have side effects, is if you start taking the drug yourself. Every woman is different – we know this. But it’s scary to wait and see if you are going to be one of the unlucky ones. We do know, from years of scientific data, that you are more likely to experience some side effects vs others. So let’s take a look at what could happen.
Common Side Effects
Hot flashes are the most commonly reported side effect. Upwards of 47-81%of women experience hot flashes which can significantly affect their lives. Although, I’ve never been treated with oral anti-hormonal drugs, I did go into perimenopause following the removal of my left ovary. The hot flashes made me furious! I was far too young to be experience symptoms of menopause so I would be infuriated each time I started flushing (which of course, only made it worse).
Typically, hot flashes do occur early in treatment (hours – days). The good news is that once your body becomes accustom to the new level of hormones, the hot flashes will lessen. But just like natural menopause, how long you will experience hot flashes for will really vary from woman to woman.
Right up there with hot flashes is muscle and joint aches and pains (e.g. myalgia, arthralgia). Anywhere between 5-36%of people experience these symptoms often described as aching. It can be very limiting and may worsen pain you had prior to treatment.
Serious (but rare) Side Effects
Bone health is incredibly important when taking anti-hormonal drugs. Your bone mineral density (a measure of osteoporosis) can decrease during use. Osteoporosis can occur in about 7% of people and fractures in 4-11%. Because of the impact on bone health, you’ll want to ensure that your calcium and vitamin D intake is optimized. To determine how much calcium you are currently consuming in your diet and how much you should supplement with, visit the calcium calculator.
There is an increased risk of developing a clot while on treatment. Although clots are rare, 2-4% of women, it’s very serious and scary so it’s important to be aware. A clot can occur at any time but is most likely to develop later in treatment. For more on blood clots visit my blog post here.
You already were diagnosed with cancer, the last thing you need is another type of cancer. There is an increased risk of endometrial cancer with oral anti-hormonal drugs but the risk is very low at 0.8%.
Less Common Side Effects
There is a real range of side effects that can occur but most are less common: hair thinning, vaginal dryness, nausea, vomiting. If you are experiencing some of the less frequent side effects, it can be extremely frustrating and real. However, they do occur less frequently compared to hot flashes and joint pain.
Next week on the blog, I’ll be sharing how you can prevent or treat some of the side effects from these oral anti-hormonal drugs.
The information shared does not constitute a medical consultation and is not intended to replace professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Consult with your doctor or other qualified health provider for questions regarding a medical condition.
Please do not disregard professional health provider advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read here. In the event of a medical emergency, call a doctor or 911 immediately