Letrozole is a treatment for breast cancer. It is also known as Femara.
What is letrozole?
Letrozole is a treatment for breast cancer for women who have been through their menopause. It is a type of hormone therapy drug. It is a tablet, you take once a day.
You might have it:
- after other treatments for breast cancer to reduce the risk of the cancer coming back
- before surgery to reduce the size of the cancer
- as a treatment for advanced cancer (secondary cancer)
It varies how long you will take it for, you might take it for:
- between 4 and 8 months if you are taking it before surgery
- 5 years if you are taking it after other treatment to reduce the risk of your cancer coming back
- for as long as it is working if you’re taking it for advanced cancer
How does letrozole work?
Letrozole lowers the levels of the female sex hormone oestrogen in the body. Oestrogen stimulates some breast cancers to grow. These breast cancers are called hormone sensitive or hormone receptor positive. Letrozole can stop or slow the growth of these cancers.
Letrozole only works in women who have had their menopause.
After the menopause, women don't produce oestrogen from their ovaries. But they still produce a small amount by using an enzyme called aromatase which turns other sex hormones called androgens into oestrogen. This change happens mainly in fatty tissue, muscle and the skin. Letrozole is a type of drug called an aromatase inhibitor. It blocks aromatase so that it can't change androgens into oestrogen.
How do you have letrozole?
You have letrozole as a tablet once a day. It is best to take the tablets at the same time each day. You can take them with or without food.
Taking your tablets
You should take the right dose, not more or less.
Talk to your specialist or advice line before you stop taking a cancer drug.
If you accidentally take too much letrozole (Femara), contact a doctor or hospital straight away. You might need medical treatment.
If you forget to take a dose and it is almost time for your next dose (for example, within 2 or 3 hours), skip the dose you missed and take your next dose when it is due. Otherwise, take the dose as soon as you remember. Then take the next dose at the normal time. Don't take a double dose.
You might have blood tests before starting treatment and during your treatment. They check your general health and might check your levels of blood cells and other substances in the blood.
What are the side effects of letrozole?
We haven't listed all the side effects. It is very unlikely that you will have all of these side effects, but you might have some of them at the same time.
How often and how severe the side effects are can vary from person to person. They also depend on what other treatment you are having. For example, your side effects could be worse if you are also having other drugs or radiotherapy.
When to contact your team
Your doctor or nurse will go through the possible side effects. They will monitor you closely during treatment and check how you are at your appointments. Contact your advice line as soon as possible if:
- you have severe side effects
- your side effects aren’t getting any better
- your side effects are getting worse
Common side effects
These side effects happen in more than 10 in 100 people (10%). You might have one or more of them. They include:
Raised cholesterol levels
You can have raised cholesterol levels in the blood. This is usually only slightly raised and you will have regular blood tests to check the levels.
We have some tips for coping with hot flushes and the possible treatments for men and women. Talk to your doctor if your hot flushes are hard to cope with. They might be able to prescribe you some medicines.
You might sweat more than usual especially under the arms and your hands and feet. Tell your doctor or nurse they may be able to help.
Joint and muscle pain
You might feel some pain from your muscles and joints. Speak to your doctor or nurse about what painkillers you can take to help with this.
You might feel very tired and as though you lack energy.
Various things can help you to reduce tiredness and cope with it, for example exercise. Some research has shown that taking gentle exercise can give you more energy. It is important to balance exercise with resting.
Occasional side effects
These side effects happen in between 1 and 10 out of every 100 people (1 to 10%). You might have one or more of them. They include:
- change in appetite - you might eat more or less
- feeling like your heart is racing (heart palpitations)
- high blood pressure
- feeling or being sick
- constipation or diarrhoea
- tummy (abdominal) pain
- hair loss
- dry skin
- bone problems such as weak bones, pain or fractures
- bleeding from the vagina
- swelling of hands, feet, arms and legs
- chest pain
- weight gain
Rare side effects
These side effects happen in fewer than 1 in 100 people (1%). You might have one or more of them. They include:
- urine infection
- pain where the cancer is
- a drop in white blood cells
- anxiety, feeling nervous and irritable
- feeling sleepy
- not being able to get to sleep
- not able to remember
- damage to the nerves causing tingling, prickling or numbness
- loss of feeling of touch or sensation of touch
- loss of taste
- eye problems such as blurred vision, cataracts or irritation
- heart problems such as a fast heart rate, angina or heart attack
- blood clots including deep vein clots (DVT)
- shortness of breath and a cough
- dry mouth and inflammation of the lining of the mouth
- changes to the way the liver works
- needing to pass small amounts of urine frequently during the day
- discharge from the vagina
- dryness of the vagina
- breast pain
- general swelling
- feeling thirsty
- high temperature
- weight loss
Coping with side effects
We have more information about side effects and tips on how to cope with them.
What else do I need to know?
Other medications, food and drink
Cancer drugs can interact with some other medicines and herbal products. Tell your doctor or pharmacist about any medicines you are taking. This includes vitamins, herbal supplements and over the counter remedies.
You should only have this treatment if you have gone through the menopause. Because of the way it works there is a very small chance you could become pregnant. Your doctor will talk to you about the most effective contraception to use.
Pregnancy and contraception
You should only take this drug if you have been through your menopause. When you first go through the menopause there can still be a chance that you could become pregnant. This drug may harm a baby developing in the womb. It is important to not to become pregnant while you are having treatment and for a few months afterwards. So, even if you have had your menopause, talk to your doctor or nurse about effective contraception before starting treatment.
Don’t breastfeed during this treatment because the drug may come through into your breast milk.
Treatment for other conditions
Always tell other doctors, nurses, pharmacists or dentists that you’re having this treatment if you need treatment for anything else, including teeth problems.
More information about this treatment
For further information about this treatment go to the electronic Medicines Compendium (eMC) website.
You can report any side effect you have to the Medicines Health and Regulatory Authority (MHRA) as part of their Yellow Card Scheme.
iWantGreatCare lets patients leave feedback on their experience of taking a particular drug. The feedback is from individual patients. It is not information, or specialist medical advice, from Cancer Research UK.