Hot flushes and cancer - Maggie's Centres

Hot flushes and cancer

You may experience hot flushes during or after cancer treatment. Whilst it is a symptom more commonly associated with women and menopause, some treatments can trigger hot flushes in men too. 

They can be mild or severe, and happen, or several times a day. ‘Hot flush’ is an apt name. It is a feeling of intense heat radiating through your face, head and upper body. You may feel faint and sweaty. Some people have palpitations, feel anxious, and it can affect mood. At night hot flushes can cause night sweats and your sleep may be affected. 

The information on this page will help you to find out more about hot flushes and cancer.  We’ll focus on ways to help manage the symptoms, including how Maggie’s can support you.

Hot flushes and cancer explained

Hot flushes (also called hot flashes) can be hard to describe, but you will definitely know if you’re experiencing them.  They can be caused by the cancer itself or be a side effect of your treatment.  They can affect both men and women, although there is more awareness of hot flushes for women, because they’re also a side effect of the menopause.

The main cause of hot flushes is a lowering of hormone levels, which may be from treatments such as chemotherapy, surgical procedures involving ovaries or testes, and hormone therapy. Hormone therapy is often used in breast cancer and prostate cancer.

People describe a sensation of intense heat flushing through their upper body, face and head. You may feel light headed, palpitations and anxious. They can cause sweating and reddening of the neck and face. When they happen at night a hot flush can wake you up, and you may find the bed drenched with sweat. Hot flushes can vary from mild to intense.

You may get several hot flushes a day, and at times it may impact on your quality of life. Those around you may not fully understand how embarrassing and frustrating they can be. Many people find they can put up with mild hot flushes. However, if you’re getting severe hot flushes (in intensity and frequency), do let your healthcare team know. 

Managing hot flushes and cancer

Living with hot flushes, whether they are temporary or ongoing, may be helped by trying the following suggestions:-

  • Hot flushes do usually reduce over time:  This thought can be encouraging if you’re having a bad day, but if they go on for months then talk to your healthcare team.
  • Work out your ‘triggers’ : These can include caffeine, alcohol, spicy food, being in a hot room, being stressed, and smoking, for example. If you write down the time/ frequency of your hot flushes, after a few weeks you may see a pattern developing and be able to work out your particular triggers. Reducing or cutting out caffeine, alcohol and smoking is beneficial.
  • Learning to manage stress, and ways to relax can help too: At our Maggie’s we have a number of  workshops, and courses designed to help you learn strategies to manage stress. You can also join in our relaxation, yoga and tai chi sessions - as part of managing your wellbeing and general well being.
  • Talk to your family and friends: Let them know how you feel, and how the hot flushes impact on you. Explain that they can affect your mood and that there may be times when temperature control is an issue. Their support and understanding can be a great help.
  • Practical measures can help with the physical symptoms: Having a cool room to sleep in, wearing loose cotton or other non synthetic clothing, and having window open can be helpful.  A hand held or electric fan can ease the heat intensity. Cool drinks to sip rather than hot drinks help some people with temperature control. Silk duvets and pillows seem to be both comfortable and absorbent if night sweats are an issue - although having several layers of bedding, which you can reduce if you get hot, may be an alternative.
  • Complementary therapies may help:  Do check with your healthcare team and let them know if you are considering using  complementary therapies as some may  notmix well with  your  treatment or medications.  Recent research has shown that acupuncture is effective at relieving symptoms for some people.  CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), relaxation and visualisation can be effective.
  • Nutritional and herbal supplements may be helpful:  Again check with your doctor as some can interfere with your treatment.  There is conflicting advice about various supplements and foods containing phyto-oestrogens (a plant form similar in structure to our oestrogen). If you have a hormone related cancer, such as breast cancer, there is research going on to find out if soya foods block the efficiency of some hormone therapies. You may like to discuss diet and nutrition at your nearest Maggie’s Centre, and try our ‘eating well’ workshops.
  • If you’re on hormone therapy, and are experiencing hot flushes which are frequent and severe, mention it to your doctor or specialist nurse.  The hot flushes often start early on in treatment, and then settle down as your body adjusts to the change in hormone levels. However, if the symptoms persist, it may be that the doctor tries a different hormone therapy, or even a different brand of the same type.
  • There are medicines that your doctor may prescribe:These include vitamin E, folic acid, and antidepressants. There is also a drug called ‘Clonidine’, normally used to treat high blood pressure. They can reduce the frequency of the flushes, but not the severity. Some anti-epilepsy drugs have also been shown to reduce hot flushes. Most drugs have additional side effects though, so have a discussion with your doctor about the pro’s and con’s.

When to seek further help

Severe hot flushes can affect mood, and you may find you’re feeling anxious or depressed. It may be an additional strain on your coping mechanisms, along with the cancer and its treatments. Do talk your GP and/or healthcare team about how you feel, as help is available.

If your hot flushes are not an expected side effect of your cancer or its treatments or they have suddenly increased in severity or intensity do check with your doctor. Hot flushes are not generally harmful, but occasionally it may be a symptom of an additional health issue or problem.

What now?

Have a look at our blogs and links on this page to find out more about coping with hot flushes and cancer.

Talk with others about what you are experiencing. It can help to hear that what you’re feeling is not unusual, and help you feel less alone. Call into your local Maggie’s Centre, or join our online forums to talk to our professional teams and connect with others in a similar position to yourself.

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