Saturday 22 May 2021

Managing side effects of Endocrine Therapy: BRiC's Collective Voice


Is it too much to ask?

A recent Sunday discussion looked at the side effects of endocrine (hormone) therapy for those of our members with hormone positive breast cancer. Drugs such as tamoxifen, zoladex and aromatise inhibitors (such as anastrazol, exemestane, letrozole) are used to prevent recurrence or spread of cancer after a primary diagnosis or as part of ongoing treatment for those who live with secondary breast cancer.

Naz shared a research article published this month in the scientific journal Lancet Oncology which had reviewed the evidence for approaches to manage side effects. The article pointed out that hormone therapy causes a significant impact on quality of life and to adherence to medication. They feel that there should be an aim for breast cancer patients to be returned to pre-cancer quality of life and emotional/social function. Further, it was felt that this could only be achieved by careful management of side effect of anti cancer treatments. Members do not appear to receive much support to achieve this aim, with many being given a prescription for tablets to take for 5 or 10 years and then sent away with no further follow up.

Side effects can substantially affect our quality of life but stopping the medication could have an adverse impact on cancer survival. One article cited in the article found that 16% of pre-menopausal women stopped taking the medication due to side effects. Some of our members felt that side effects made them miserable with impaired quality of life but felt they had no follow up and that some felt their concerns were not taken seriously by medical teams. There seems to be a feeling that we should be grateful to have had our breast cancer treated and that side effects were just part of keeping the cancer away. Some had very helpful GPs but others felt their family doctor did not have the expertise of the oncology team who made the initial prescription.

Many side effects were reported by our members. Some were commonly recognised in breast cancer leaflets - hot flushes, joint pains, sexual dysfunction and reduced bone density. There were many others: vaginal dryness causing pain during intercourse, low mood, cognitive impairment (this often had a significant impact on work and home life), poor quality sleep and thinning of hair, nails and skin. For some, the joint pains were so severe, they struggled to walk.

As always, our members offered advice on what had helped them the most. Clearly there were some pharmaceutical prescriptions given by a doctor but there were also non-pharmaceutical options too. Many found a more holistic approach helpful using mindfulness techniques. Yoga and Pilates were found to ease stiff and painful joints. Exercise was found very helpful at helping lift mood, help reduce the frequency of hot flushes and improve sleep as well as improving fitness. Some members like to run, others to walk, cycle or garden. Others found the use of dietary supplement helpful, although it is important to check with your doctor, pharmacist or specialist nurse to ensure there are no interactions with prescribed treatments.

Pain control was very important for those with muscle and joint pains. For some, simple pain killers such as paracetamol sufficed, for others pain control was much trickier - some had been referred to a rheumatologist and found this helpful. Acupuncture was also used, albeit with varying success. For many, however, they were left to try to manage pain in the absence of an oncology team. Sometimes a change in medication or a short break can make a lot of difference but these opportunities are not available in the absence of follow up support.

Sexual dysfunction was very common, especially after the rapid menopause brought on by breast cancer treatments. Many members felt it hard to talk to medical teams about such a deeply personal issue. Vaginal dryness symptoms can be addressed with a prescribed but other symptoms such as loss of sex drive were much harder to talk about and even harder to find treatment in the absence of an oncology team with access to a psycho-sexual counselling team.

Almost universal amongst our members was the lack of information about benefits of treatment and harm from side effects. This meant that there was little opportunity to discuss in depth how much the treatment would benefit them and at what cost. Without this, there is no informed consent for drugs to be taken for up to 10 years. More than one member described being sent off with no follow up and a box of pills.For those who still had regular oncology follow up, this was felt to be useful and a good opportunity to get help.

Our members know what they want and need to manage their symptoms:
To be heard and believed when we say our symptoms are a struggle for us
Access to ongoing oncology or breast cancer team support and follow up with a point of contact so we can report significant side effects and access treatment options.
Full information about benefits and risks at time of starting hormone therapy (not merely an information leaflet to take away and read)
Better understanding from our employers at the changes in our physical well-being and cognition.
Given everything we have been through and will continue to go through, surely it is not too much to ask for?


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