Hormone Therapy vs. Chemotherapy: Uses, Benefits, Side Effects, and More

Hormone therapy and chemotherapy are two options for treating breast and prostate cancer. The treatments have similar goals and are sometimes used together, but they are two very different types of cancer treatments.

Knowing more about each one can help reduce your anxiety about starting cancer treatment and provide you with information to make informed decisions.

This article will discuss hormone therapy and chemotherapy for cancer, the side effects, costs, and how to cope with treatment.

Healthcare provider and person with cancer discuss treatment options

Ariel Skelley / Getty Images

What to Know About Hormone Therapy

Hormone therapy treats cancer that depends on or uses hormones to grow or spread. It can be used as a primary cancer treatment or to ease symptoms and reduce the size of cancers that are not operable or cannot be cured.

How Does It Work?

There are two main kinds of hormone therapies:

  • Those that block the production of hormones
  • Those that interfere with the behavior of hormones in the body

Hormone therapy may be used for breast cancer when the tumor cells have hormone receptors for estrogen or progesterone. In people with prostate cancer, hormone therapy may be used to reduce or block androgen hormones.

Hormone Therapy Delivery

Depending on the drug, hormone therapy can be given in various ways. These can include:

  • Orally (pills)
  • Injection (an intramuscular or subcutaneous shot)

Surgery to remove the ovaries (oophorectomy) or testicles (orchiectomy) is another form of hormone therapy. These reproductive organs produce hormones that may stimulate some types of cancer.

Hormone therapy may be done at home if it’s a pill you take, or it may be administered in a clinic, hospital, or cancer treatment center. 

Side Effects

Side effects can depend on the specific drug you’re taking, what kind of cancer you have, the dosage, and any other cancer treatment you may be getting. Common side effects can include:

  • Hot flashes
  • Loss of libido (desire to have sex)
  • Weakened bones
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Fatigue
  • Vaginal dryness
  • Enlarged or tender breasts (in males)
  • Disruptions in the menstrual cycle if you’re not in menopause
  • Mood fluctuations

If the side effects are especially bothersome or cannot be relieved, let your treatment team know.

Prices and Where to Get It

The cost of hormone therapy depends on a few things, including what drug you’re taking, where you live, how long you’ll be on it, and the dosage.

If you have health insurance, call them to find out what your benefits are with hormone therapy. They can give you an estimate of your out-of-pocket expenses and copays (the amount you pay for each prescription or service). You can also talk with the finance or billing department of your health provider’s office or treatment center.

If you do not have health insurance, speak with the billing department of your treatment place. They may have financial aid programs or know of grants or programs you can apply for to help pay for cancer treatment.

What to Know About Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is the use of certain medications to treat or cure cancer.

How Does It Work?

Chemotherapy targets fast-growing cells. These include cancer cells but also some healthy cells. This effect on healthy cells is why certain side effects can occur. The drugs stop or slow down the growth and multiplication of cancer cells.

Chemotherapy can be used to treat cancer and reduce the risk of it recurring. It can also be used to shrink tumors before surgery to make them easier to remove or shrink large tumors that are causing pain.

Chemotherapy Delivery

Chemotherapy can be given in several different ways. How it is delivered depends on the type of cancer you have, the drug, dosage, your treatment regimen, and your overall health. Ways that chemotherapy can be given include:

  • Oral: Pills or liquids you swallow
  • Intravenous (IV): Goes directly into a vein through a line
  • Injection: Given into a muscle or under the skin
  • Intrathecal: Injected into the space between the tissue layers covering the brain and spinal cord
  • Intraperitoneal (IP): Placed right into the peritoneal cavity, the area that holds your intestines, stomach, and liver
  • Intra-arterial (IA): Injected into the artery leading to the cancer
  • Topical: Preparations you apply to the skin

Side Effects

Side effects of chemotherapy can vary among individuals. The side effects you experience can also depend on the dosage and the treatment regimen, specific drug, and overall health. Common side effects can include:

  • Fatigue (due to anemia—low numbers of healthy red blood cells)
  • Hair loss
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Changes in bowel habits (diarrhea, constipation)
  • Mouth/tongue/throat issues (sores, difficulty swallowing)
  • Peripheral neuropathy (nerve damage)
  • Appetite changes
  • Easy bruising (due to destruction of platelet cells that assist in blood clotting)
  • Fluctuations in weight
  • Chemo brain (mental cloudiness)
  • Changes in libido and fertility
  • Increased risk of infection

Before you start treatment, talk with your treatment team about the drugs you will be taking and their possible side effects. Ask them how to manage symptoms at home and when to contact them about side effects.

Prices and Where to Get It

The cost of chemotherapy drugs can depend on several things: the specific drug, your treatment regimen, and where you live. If you have insurance, call your insurance company to ask what your out-of-pocket costs will be.

If you do not have insurance, talk with your healthcare provider. Treatment centers often have a financial office where you can discuss the costs and how much you are expected to pay. They may know of financial aid programs you can apply for and provide you with possible resources.

Your healthcare provider prescribes chemotherapy drugs. Depending on the drug and mode of delivery, you may get chemotherapy at the treatment center or hospital or take it at home.

Which Treatment Is Best for You?

The best treatment for you depends on a variety of things: your age, your overall health, the type of cancer you have and its stage, various factors with your cancer like hormone receptor status, and any other medical conditions you might have.

You and your treatment team will review all of your treatment options and go over the risks and benefits of each one. Together, you can gather all of the necessary information to make an informed decision about your treatment.

Can Hormone Therapy and Chemotherapy Be Used Together?

Yes, they can be used together for certain cancers for certain people. It also depends on your menopausal status, overall health, and age. Sometimes they can be combined or used sequentially. Talk with your treatment team about what options are best for you.

Coping With the Side Effects

Side effects can affect everyone differently. If you’re experiencing significant side effects, talk with your treatment team about things you can do to help minimize them.

Home remedies that can help ease some potential effects of cancer treatment include:

  • Take short naps to ease fatigue.
  • Light exercise can reduce fatigue (check with your healthcare provider before starting).
  • Eat small snacks throughout the day to keep energy up.
  • Don’t be shy about asking others for assistance or help to conserve your energy.
  • Get anti-nausea medication from your treatment team if you’re nauseous.
  • Eat smaller, more frequent meals instead of three bigger ones.
  • Practice stress management.
  • Use over-the-counter medication for constipation or diarrhea if necessary.
  • Avoid acidic, spicy, greasy, or salty foods to help with nausea and mouth sores.
  • Avoid extreme temperatures with food.
  • Stay hydrated.
  • Talk with your treatment team about any issues with intimate relationships; they can provide suggestions, depending on your specific concerns.

Summary

Both hormone therapy and chemotherapy are used to help treat certain kinds of cancer. They work in different ways, but the end goals are the same: to kill cancer cells, reduce tumor size, ease symptoms, and help prevent the spread or recurrence of cancer.

There can be side effects to each, and knowing what to expect and how to cope can help make things a little easier.

A Word From Verywell

Your treatment team doesn't just determine treatment—they’re also there to help you through your cancer treatment. If you’re having a hard time with side effects or struggling emotionally, let them know.

They can provide you with resources, whether it’s a nutritionist, counselor, support group, or billing specialist. Don’t hesitate to use their expertise.

7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. American Cancer Society. Hormone therapy for breast cancer.

  3. American Cancer Society. Hormone therapy for prostate cancer.

  4. National Cancer Institute. Chemotherapy to treat cancer.

  5. American Cancer Society. Chemotherapy side effects.

  6. Li T, Shan Z, Yu L, et al. Sequential versus concurrent use of chemotherapy and endocrine therapy in the adjuvant treatment of ER-positive breast cancer: a systematic review of Bayesian network meta-analysis. Journal of Clinical Oncology. 2019;37(15suppl). doi:10.1200/JCO.2019.37.15_suppl.e12040

  7. Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. Coping with side effects.