Definition and Overview
After diagnosing cancer, your healthcare team will outline a treatment plan that is best suited for your condition. Cancer can be treated in many different ways depending on the type of cancer, the location of the cancer cells, and whether it has already spread. There usually is more than just one type recommended for a more comprehensive cancer treatment.
Types of Cancer Treatment
Cancer treatment now includes traditional therapies (such as surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy), newer forms of treatment (including stem cell therapy and clinical trials), as well as alternative and complementary therapies. Outlined below are specific information about these treatment options.
Chemotherapy - Chemotherapy involves the use of medication and drugs that are introduced either intravenously or orally, affecting the entire body. There are over 50 kinds of chemotherapy drugs; almost all of them work by targeting rapidly multiplying cells - a feature distinct and common to all cancer cells. However, there are also other types of cells in the body that multiply rapidly but do not cause cancer, such as the stomach lining and hair follicle cells and yet they are also being targeted by the therapy. This is the reason why people who undergo this method experience severe abdominal pains and suffer from hair loss. Other common side effects of chemotherapy include fatigue or tiredness, nausea and vomiting, anemia, vulnerability to bruising and bleeding, loss of appetite, dehydration, sleeping problems, digestion problems and diarrhea.
Radiation Therapy - Radiation therapy involves the use of concentrated, high-energy radiation directed to kill specific tumor cells. With this treatment, cancer cells are damaged and killed without compromising too many healthy cells. Radiation therapy is carefully planned out by a radiation oncologist, and is performed on a regular basis for a specified time period. The side effects of radiation therapy are largely dependent on the area where radiation is being applied to. For instance, radiation to parts of the digestive system can result in loss of appetite. Radiotherapy usually results in skin darkening in the site being treated.
Surgery - The removal of cancerous tumors through surgery has been one of the cornerstones of cancer treatment. The use of surgery for cancer encompasses different methods ranging from minor procedures for diagnosis and evaluation (such as biopsy to determine the cellular nature and stage of the cancer) to major surgical operations to remove primary cancer cells. However, surgical removal of tumors is usually complemented with other treatment options due to the possibility of metastasis – a condition wherein cancer cells recur and the cancer becomes more serious. There is growing scientific evidence suggesting that cancer surgery may increase the risk of metastasis, so it is often followed by chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
Targeted Therapy - Targeted cancer therapy is a new branch of chemotherapy that works well for some types of cancers. This involves the use of therapy drugs that don't work in the same way as standard chemo drugs. Instead of targeting rapidly multiplying cells, targeted therapy drugs are designed to interfere with certain molecules and enzymes necessary for the growth and progression of tumor cells. This therapy only works for certain types of cancer including: breast cancer (HER2+ type), renal cell carcinoma, melanoma, cervical cancer, colorectal cancer, glioblastoma, ovarian cancer, peritoneal cancer, Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, prostate cancer, and lymphoblastic or lymphocytic leukemia.
Immunotherapy and Vaccines - Immunotherapy, also known as biotherapy, is a new type of cancer treatment that maximizes the natural abilities of the body’s immune system to fight cancer cells. Using laboratory-made materials such as monoclonal antibodies and cancer vaccines, the body’s natural defenses are optimized to kill cancer cells or at least slow them down and stop them from spreading. Side effects of immunotherapy and cancer vaccines are usually minor and may include rashes, flu-like symptoms, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting.
Stem Cell and Bone Marrow Transplant - Stem cell and bone marrow transplant are invasive treatment options suggested for several types of cancer including leukemia, lymphoma and multiple myeloma. Usually suggested after chemotherapy and radiation have been completed, this method of treatment is centered on replenishing the body with a new set of healthy cells and bone marrow that will produce new cells. Stem cells can form new blood cells and platelets that can attack and destroy any cancer cells left in the bloodstream.
Clinical Trials - Today, there are many clinical trials that aim to discover new methods of treating cancer. Hospitals, health institutions, as well as government and non-government organizations all around the world, collaborate to make breakthrough advances in the field with the help and participation of volunteer patients. Clinical trials continue to reveal more new information for preventing, diagnosing, and stopping cancer. It is only through clinical trials that scientifically proven treatments for cancer are discovered.
Complementary and Alternative Medicine - Complementary treatments for cancer are those methods not considered part of traditional cancer treatment but are sought to improve physical and emotional well-being while undergoing conventional treatment. Including in its lengthy list are yoga, herbal supplementation, acupuncture, massage, and art therapy. Alternative therapies, however, such as special diets purported to stop cancer cell growth, are those suggested as alternatives to conventional treatment. They are usually discouraged by medical practitioners and have not undergone scientific testing for safety.
Choosing Your Treatment Method - After being diagnosed with cancer, it is important to sit down and talk to your oncologist or health care team who will carefully explain the diagnosis and suggested treatment plan. Make sure to get as much information as possible about your range of options, including the goals and the potential side effects of each in order to make a wise, informed decision.
American Cancer Society. “Types of Cancer Treatment” Available: http://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatmentsandsideeffects/
- American Society of Clinical Oncology. “How Cancer is Treated” Available: http://www.cancer.net/navigating-cancer-care/how-cancer-treated
- National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health. “Cancer Treatment” Available: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/treatment