What is exemestane?

Exemestane is a hormonal therapy drug used to treat breast cancer. 

It may be used to treat breast cancer if you have been through the menopause. It may sometimes also be given if you have not yet had your menopause. 

Exemestane may be used:

  • after other treatments, to reduce the risk of breast cancer coming back 
  • to control breast cancer that has come back or spread to other parts of the body (secondary breast cancer).

It can be given alone or with other types of treatment. It is best to read this information with our general information about hormonal therapies and the type of cancer you have.

Your doctor will talk to you about this treatment and its possible side effects before you agree (consent) to have treatment.

How exemestane works

Hormones are chemicals that our bodies make. Hormones act as messengers and help control how cells and organs work. Hormonal therapies are drugs that change the way hormones are made or how they work in the body.

Many breast cancers rely on the hormone oestrogen to grow. This called oestrogen receptor-positive (ER positive) breast cancer.

Exemestane reduces the amount of oestrogen in the body. It blocks an enzyme (a type of protein) that helps produce oestrogen in the fatty tissues of the body.

Taking exemestane tablets

 Exemestane comes as tablets you can take at home. You take it once a day after food. Try to take it at the same time each day. Swallow it whole with a glass of water. Do not chew or crush the tablets. You may have exemestane on its own, or with other drugs. 

If you forget to take your tablet, take it as soon as you remember. If it is nearly time for the next dose, just take the next dose at the usual time. Do not take a double dose.

Exemestane is a long-term treatment. You usually take it for several years. Your nurse or doctor will talk to you about your treatment plan. Always take the tablets exactly as explained. This is important to make sure they work as well as possible for you. 

Other things to remember about your tablets:

  • Keep them in the original package and at room temperature, away from heat and direct sunlight.
  • Keep them safe and out of sight and reach of children.
  • If you are sick just after taking the tablets, contact your healthcare team. Do not take another dose.
  • Get a new prescription before you run out of tablets, and make sure you have plenty for holidays.
  • If your treatment is stopped, return any unused tablets to the pharmacist. 

Your nurse or pharmacist may also give you other medicines to take home. Take all your medicines exactly as they have been explained to you. Do not stop taking any of your medicines unless your doctor tells you to. 

About side effects

About side effects

We explain the most common side effects of this treatment here. We also include some less common side effects.

You may get some of the side effects we mention, but you are unlikely to get all of them. If you are also having treatment with other cancer drugs, you may have some side effects that we have not listed here.

You may have some rarer side effects that we have not listed here. Always tell your doctor, nurse or pharmacist about any side effects you have.

Your doctor, nurse or pharmacist can give you drugs to help control some side effects. It is important to take them exactly as they tell you. This means the drugs will be more likely to work for you. Your doctor, nurse or pharmacist will give you advice about managing your side effects. After your treatment is over, most side effects start to improve.

Serious and life-threatening side effects

Some cancer treatments can cause severe side effects. Rarely, these may be life-threatening. Your cancer doctor or nurse can explain the risk of these side effects to you.

Contact the hospital

Your nurse will give you telephone numbers for the hospital. If you feel unwell or need advice, you can call them at any time of the day or night. Save these numbers in your phone or keep them somewhere safe.

More information

We cannot list every side effect for this treatment. There are some rare side effects that are not listed. You can visit the electronic Medicines Compendium (eMC) for more detailed information.

Common side effects

Hot flushes and sweats

Hot flushes are a common side effect of this treatment. During a flush, your neck and face may feel warm and look red. Flushes may last from a few seconds up to 10 minutes. You may have sweats and then feel cold and clammy. Some people feel anxious or irritable during a hot flush.

There are things you can do to try to reduce flushes:

  • Wear clothes made from natural fabrics, such as cotton.
  • Wear layers of clothes that you can remove if you feel hot.
  • Use cotton bed sheets and have layers of bedding that you can remove if you feel hot.
  • Keep room temperatures cool or use a fan.
  • Have cold drinks rather than hot ones. Try to avoid drinks with caffeine in them.

You may have fewer hot flushes and sweats as your body adjusts to hormonal treatment. Or your doctor can prescribe drugs to help. Flushes and sweats usually stop a few months after treatment finishes, but some people continue to have them.

You can read more about coping with hot flushes.

Muscle or joint pain

You may get pain in your muscles or joints. If this happens, tell your doctor so they can give you painkillers. Being physically active may help with the pain and keep your joints flexible. Keeping to a healthy weight may help too. Tell your doctor or nurse if the pain does not get better.

Feeling sick

Any sickness is usually mild, but let your doctor or nurse know if this happens. Try taking your tablets with food or at night.

Headaches

This treatment may cause headaches. If you have headaches, tell your doctor. They may give you painkillers to help.

Feeling dizzy

Exemestane may cause dizziness. Let your doctor or nurse know if this is a problem.

Indigestion or tummy pain

This treatment may cause indigestion or tummy pain. Let your doctor know if you have any of these symptoms. They can prescribe drugs to help.

Feeling tired (fatigue)

Feeling tired is a common side effect. Try to pace yourself and plan your day so you have time to rest between activities.

Being physically active can help to manage tiredness and give you more energy. It also:

  • helps you sleep better
  • reduces stress
  • improves your bone health.

If you feel sleepy, do not drive or operate machinery.

Mood changes

You may have some mood changes during this treatment. You may feel low or depressed. Let your doctor or nurse know if you notice any changes.

Sleeping problems

You may not sleep well while you are taking this treatment. Ask your doctor or nurse for advice if this is a problem for you.

Effects on the liver

Treatment may affect how your liver works. This is usually mild. You will have blood tests to check how well your liver is working.

Rarely, exemestane can cause inflammation of the liver (hepatitis). Tell your doctor straight away if:

  • the whites of your eyes or your skin look yellow
  • you feel unwell and itchy
  • you have pain on the right side of your tummy.

Less common side effects

Loss of appetite

This treatment can affect your appetite. If you do not feel like eating 3 big meals a day, try to eat small, frequent meals or snacks instead.

Diarrhoea

This is usually mild. If it does not get better, your doctor, nurse or pharmacist can prescribe drugs to control it. If you have diarrhoea, make sure you drink at least 2 litres (3½ pints) of fluids every day.

Constipation

This treatment can cause constipation. Constipation means that you are not able to pass stools (poo) as often as you normally do. It can become difficult or painful. Here are some tips that may help:

  • Drink at least 2 litres (3½ pints) of fluids each day.
  • Eat high-fibre foods, such as fruit, vegetables and wholemeal bread.
  • Do regular gentle exercise, like going for short walks.

If you have constipation, contact the hospital on the 24-hour number for advice. They can give you drugs called laxatives to help. 

If you have not been able to pass stools for over 2 days and are being sick, contact the 24-hour number straight away. 

Skin changes

This treatment may affect your skin. Your doctor or nurse can tell you what to expect. If your skin feels dry, try using an unperfumed moisturising cream every day. The treatment may cause a rash, which may be itchy.

Always tell your doctor or nurse about any skin changes. They can give you advice and may prescribe creams or medicines to help. Any changes to your skin are usually temporary and improve when treatment finishes.

It is very important to contact your doctor straight away if you get a severe skin rash.

Hair thinning

Your hair may become thinner when you are taking this treatment. This is usually mild. Ask your nurse for advice if you are worried about this.

Bone thinning (osteoporosis)

If you take this treatment for several months or more, you may get bone thinning. This is called osteoporosis. This can increase your risk of a broken bone (fracture). You may have bone density scans to check your bone health before and during treatment.

Doing regular exercise, such as walking, can improve your bone health. Eating a healthy diet can help too. Your doctor may prescribe drugs called bisphosphonates to help protect your bones. They may also advise you to take calcium and vitamin D supplements.

Pain, numbness or tingling in hand and fingers

Some people may get pain, numbness or tingling in the hands and fingers. These symptoms may be caused by carpal tunnel syndrome, which is caused by pressure on a nerve in the wrist. If you have these symptoms, tell your doctor, nurse or pharmacist.

Build-up of fluid

You may get swollen feet and ankles due to fluid building up. If you notice this or any other swelling, tell your doctor.

Risk of infection

Exemestane can reduce the number of white blood cells in your blood. These cells fight infection. If the number of white blood cells is low, you are more likely to get an infection.

If you have an infection, it is important that it is treated as soon as possible. Contact your GP if you think you have possible symptoms of infection. Signs of an infection can include:

  • having a temperature over 37.5°C (99.5°F)
  • feeling shaky
  • a cough
  • a sore throat
  • needing to pass urine (pee) often.

You will have regular blood tests during treatment.

Bruising and bleeding

This treatment can also reduce the number of platelets in your blood. Platelets are cells that help the blood to clot. Tell your doctor if you have any bruising or bleeding that you cannot explain.

Other information

Blood clot risk

Cancer and some cancer treatments can increase the risk of a blood clot. Contact the hospital straight away on the 24-hour number if you have any of these symptoms during or after treatment:

  • throbbing pain or swelling in a leg or arm
  • reddening of the skin in the area – if you have black or brown skin, this can be harder to notice, but the skin might become darker
  • suddenly feeling breathless or coughing.

Always call 999 if you have:

  • chest pain
  • difficulty breathing.

A blood clot is serious, but it can be treated with drugs called anticoagulants. These thin the blood. Your doctor, nurse or pharmacist can give you more information about preventing and treating blood clots.

Fertility

Some cancer drugs can affect whether you can get pregnant or make someone pregnant. If you are worried about this, it is important to talk with your doctor before you start treatment.

Contraception

Your doctor will advise you not to get pregnant or make someone pregnant while having this treatment. The drugs may harm a developing baby. It is important to use contraception during your treatment and for a while after treatment finishes. Your doctor, nurse or pharmacist can tell you more about this.

Breastfeeding

You are advised not to breastfeed while having this treatment, or for some time after treatment finishes. This is because the drugs could be passed to the baby through breast milk.

Your doctor or nurse can give you more information.

Medical and dental treatment

If you need medical treatment for any reason other than cancer, always tell the doctors and nurses you are having cancer treatment. Give them the contact details for your cancer doctor so they can ask for advice.

If you think you need dental treatment, talk to your cancer doctor or nurse. Always tell your dentist you are having cancer treatment.

Other medicines

Some medicines can affect how this treatment works or be harmful while you are having it. Always tell your cancer doctor, nurse or pharmacist about any drugs you are taking or planning to take, such as: 

About our information

  • Reviewers

    This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert health professionals and people living with cancer.

    Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.

Date reviewed

Reviewed: 01 March 2022
|
Next review: 01 September 2024
Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum
Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum

Our cancer information meets the PIF TICK quality mark.

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