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What is a SERM?

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  • Written By: wiseGEEK Writer
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 12 October 2018
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SERM is an acronym for selective estrogen receptor modulator. SERMs are drugs that may used in the treatment or prevention of certain forms of breast cancer. They do not treat all forms of breast cancer but are specifically targeted toward a type called hormone receptor breast cancer. In this type, cancerous cells have receptors for estrogens or progesterone and they may enlarge when they come into contact with these hormones, which makes using a SERM to block this action a valuable thing.

The body has estrogen receptors in numerous places. Breast and uterine tissue both contain them, as do cells in the bones. One of the disadvantage of simply shutting off the hormones completely is that bone mass may start to deteriorate, as it frequently does when menopause is reached.

A way around this is by finding a method of selectively blocking some receptors from receiving hormones and ignoring others. A SERM accomplishes this by only targeting the uterus and breasts while avoiding inhibiting reception of estrogen in other parts of the body. They know receptors in the different parts of the body are slightly different so it is possible to design medicines that can be selective.

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When breast cancer is present, a SERM like tamoxifen or Evista® may be considered as part of treatment. It is not always the best choice and doctors may recommend a different direction. These medicines are not particularly useful if the cancer doesn’t have hormone receptors. Sometimes treatment with a SERM continues for several years after cancer treatment as a preventative. In other cases, women or men with high genetic risk factors for breast cancer take one of these medicines to prevent its occurrence.

Many people praise SERMs as miracle drugs providing both prevention and possible cure to some forms of a deadly disease. They are certainly worthy of praise, but they do come with a high profile of side effects, which can make take them difficult to take. These include a full range of symptoms that mimic menopause, an increased risk of stroke, elevate risk for cancer of the uterus, loss of libido, and depression. This last may be difficult to treat because it appears many antidepressants interact with tamoxifen in particular.

The potential for serious side effects while taking a SERM does definitely exist. Patients are advised to thoroughly review risks and benefits and to understand which side effects require emergency treatment. Even though some people will experience more severe side effects on these medicines, people taking SERMs may experience little to no disturbances, too. Most important is that a SERM may have the power to significantly decrease risk of getting breast cancer and statistically, these medicines have been shown to improve survival results when combined with other treatment.

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