Hot flashes and night sweats are common in people with cancer, more common in women but also occurring in men. They can be a distressing symptom and affect quality of life, particularly when they frequently interrupt sleep.
Hot flashes are a sensation of the body suddenly feeling hot. They typically begin with an uneasy feeling, then feeling intensely hot in the face and/or upper body, then feeling hot all over. Before or during the hot flash, people may feel nausea, anxiety, rapid heartbeat, dizziness and headache. There may be flushing and sweating. According to the National Cancer Institute, hot flashes and night sweats may be side effects of cancer or its treatment.1
Causes of Hot Flashes
The hypothalamus gland is the body’s thermostat. When it senses that the body is too hot, thy hypothalamus causes a reaction similar to a hot flash. When you have a fever and become flushed (red), feel hot and start sweating, the hypothalamus is doing its job.
Perhaps known primarily as a condition surrounding menopause, hot flashes can also be caused by cancer or by cancer treatments such as these:
- Hormone therapy
- Surgical removal of ovaries or testes
- Radiation damage to the ovaries, testes or the hypothalamic region of the brain.
When hormone levels change—as in menopause, removal of the ovaries or testicles, or hormonal treatment for breast or prostate cancer—the hypothalamus misreads the signal and thinks the body is too hot, triggering a hot flash.
Alcohol and drugs such as opioids, tricyclic antidepressants and steroids can also trigger hot flashes.
Managing Hot Flashes
Hormonal, drug and non-drug approaches are available to manage hot flashes. While estrogen replacement therapy seems to be the most successful therapy for natural or treatment-induced menopause, this therapy is contraindicated in women who have or have had breast cancer, high-risk endometrial cancer or some ovarian cancers. In some of these cancers, suppressing estrogen’s growth-promoting effects on the cancer cells is crucial.3
Hot flashes in men with prostate cancer may be treated with estrogens, progestin, antidepressants and anticonvulsants. However, certain hormones (such as estrogen) can make some cancers grow or increase your risk of other cancers.4
Several other drugs may help with hot flashes. Typically, they are not as effective as estrogen replacement therapy, and many can cause side effects. These are discussed in detail in the following webpages:
- National Cancer Institute: Hot Flashes and Night Sweats (PDQ®)–Patient Version
- MedlinePlus: Cancer treatment: dealing with hot flashes and night sweats
- Cancer Research UK: Hot flushes and sweats in women
A number of complementary approaches can help relieve or reduce the frequency of hot flashes:5
- Dietary strategies such sipping on ice-cold drinks, or reducing or avoiding alcohol, caffeine and spicy foods, especially in the evening
- Mind-body approaches such as these:
- Progressive muscle relaxation
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
- Approaches for managing stress that reduce the hot flash-triggering effects of stress hormones
- Sleeping well by creating a more comfortable environment such as wearing light cotton clothing and running a fan or opening a window to cool the bedroom
- Some sources list natural products such as these, although results have been mixed:6
- Soy and red clover (About Herbs) have also been suggested, but evidence of effectiveness is inconsistent. Soy isoflavones reduce hot flashes more than placebo but slower and less effectively than estradiol.
- Panax ginseng (American), Angelica sinensis (dong quai) and evening primrose oil (all on the About Herbs website) have been studied, but no evidence currently supports their use in managing hot flashes.
If you are thinking of or are using a natural product for hot flashes, be sure to alert your physician. Some products (such as vitamin E or hesperiden) can interact with chemotherapy or other drugs.
Estrogen therapy may not be an option for many women who have or have had breast cancer, and some uterine and ovarian cancers. Hormone therapy may also increase risk of breast cancer or cancer recurrence.7 Check with your physician before use.
Integrative Programs, Protocols and Medical Systems
- Programs and protocols
- Traditional systems
- National Cancer Institute. Hot Flashes and Night Sweats (PDQ®)–Health Professional Version. September 27, 2017. Viewed March 9, 2018.
- Lapedis M, Adler SR et al. Qualitative analyses from a prospective clinical study of a whole systems Ayurvedic intervention for breast cancer survivorship. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 2014 May; 20(5):A75.
- National Cancer Institute. Menopausal Hormone Therapy and Cancer. December 5, 2011. Viewed July 31, 2018; Ismail NMN. Hormone replacement therapy and gynaecological cancers. Geneva Foundation for Medical Education and Research. September 27, 2017. Viewed October 18, 2018.
- Martin KA, Barbieri RL. Treatment of menopausal symptoms with hormone therapy. UpToDate. March 27, 2018. Viewed July 31, 2018; National Cancer Institute. Hot Flashes and Night Sweats (PDQ®)–Health Professional Version. September 27, 2017. Viewed March 9, 2018; Baber RJ, Panay N, Fenton A; IMS Writing Group. 2016 IMS recommendations on women's midlife health and menopause hormone therapy. Climacteric. 2016 Apr;19(2):109-50..
- Cancer Research UK. Hot flushes and sweats in women. June 25, 2015. Viewed March 11, 2018.
- Alschuler LN, Gazella KA. The Definitive Guide to Cancer, 3rd Edition: An Integrative Approach to Prevention, Treatment, and Healing. Berkeley, California: Celestial Arts. 2010.
- National Cancer Institute. Menopausal Hormone Therapy and Cancer. December 5, 2011. Viewed July 31, 2018; Martin KA, Barbieri RL. Treatment of menopausal symptoms with hormone therapy. UpToDate. March 27, 2018. Viewed July 31, 2018; Baber RJ, Panay N, Fenton A; IMS Writing Group. 2016 IMS recommendations on women's midlife health and menopause hormone therapy. Climacteric. 2016 Apr;19(2):109-50.
- Alschuler LN, Gazella KA. The Definitive Guide to Cancer, 3rd Edition: An Integrative Approach to Prevention, Treatment, and Healing. Berkeley, California: Celestial Arts. 2010; Alschuler LN, Gazella KA. The Definitive Guide to Thriving after Cancer. Berkeley, California: Ten Speed Press. 2013.
- McKinney N. Naturopathic Oncology, 3rd Edition. Victoria, BC, Canada: Liaison Press. 2016.
This article has been taken from Beyond Conventional Cancer Therapies.