Last Modified: August 22, 2011
Classification: Aromatase Inhibitor
Letrozole is an aromatase inhibitor that works to decrease the overall levels of estrogen in a woman's body. In women who have gone through menopause, estrogen is mainly produced by converting androgens (sex hormones produced by the adrenal glands) into estrogens. An enzyme called aromatase is responsible for this conversion. Aromatase inhibitors block this conversion, leading to less estrogen in the body. While estrogen may not actually cause breast cancer, it is necessary for the cancer to grow in some breast cancers. With estrogen blocked, the cancer cells that feed off estrogen may not be able to survive.
How to Take Letrozole
Letrozole comes in tablet form and is taken by mouth once daily. Letrozole can be taken with or without food.
Possible Side Effects of Letrozole
There are a number of things you can do to manage the side effects of Letrozole. Talk to your doctor or nurse about these recommendations. They can help you decide what will work best for you. These are some of the most common side effects:
There are a few things you can do to help with hot flashes. Several medications have been shown to help with symptoms, including clonidine (a blood pressure medication), low doses of certain antidepressants (such as venlafaxine and Prozac), and gabapentin. Non-medical recommendations include: keeping well-hydrated with eight glasses of water daily, wearing cotton or lightweight, breathable fabrics, dressing in layers, exercising on a regular basis (generally walking exercise is best), practicing relaxation exercises, and avoiding triggers such as warm rooms, spicy foods, caffeinated beverages, and alcohol.
Weakening of the Bones (Osteoporosis)
Your doctor will check your bone health before starting therapy. This is done with a bone density scan (dexa scan). Women with no weakening of bones prior to aromatase inhibitor therapy will have a follow-up scan around one year after starting therapy, and then every one to two years.
If the scan shows that you already have some bone weakening, your doctor may order a type of medication called a bisphosphonate or calcium and vitamin D supplements to help strengthen the bones. These therapies have been shown to protect the bones from bone loss in women taking aromatase inhibitors. If the bone density remains stable, scans can then be done every two years. Learn more about bone health after cancer therapy.
Muscle or Joint Pain/Aches and Headache
Aromatase inhibitor medications can cause joint or muscle aches and pains, which can interfere with quality of life. Be sure to talk to your oncology team if you develop this side effect. This pain is caused mainly by swelling in the joints, which is best treated by a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID), such as ibuprofen, naproxen and celecoxib. Be sure to discuss which pain relievers you can safely take with your oncology team, as these are not without their own side effects. Some studies have shown that acupuncture and gentle stretching and exercise may help reduce this pain. Learn more about AI related joint pain.
While on cancer treatment you may need to adjust your schedule to manage fatigue. Plan times to rest during the day and conserve energy for more important activities. Exercise can help combat fatigue; a simple daily walk with a friend can help. Talk to your healthcare team and see OncoLink's section on fatigue for helpful tips on dealing with this side effect.
Vaginal dryness and related painful intercourse is one of the more common side effects of cancer therapy. Vaginal lubricants and moisturizers can help with these concerns. Learn more about specific recommendations for dealing with this side effect.
Some patients may experience an increase in cholesterol levels and nausea.
In rare cases, patients developed cardiac issue, including blood clots (in the legs and lungs), stroke and heart attack. If you develop any swelling or pain in one leg or calf, shortness of breath, racing heart or chest pain, you should be evaluated by a healthcare professional right away.