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Overview: Cancer Treatments

Jessica Evert, MD, edited by Benjamin McDonald, MD

hospital roomDoctors prescribe cancer treatment regimens based on a variety of factors specific to patients' individual circumstance. These factors often include the cancer's stage (type, location, and size of the cancer being treated), as well as patients' age, medical history, and overall health. The doctor may also ask patients to specify their treatment preferences before determining an optimal treatment plan. So long as their condition does not require emergency intervention, patients should feel free to ask questions about various treatment options so as to become comfortable with the plan they will ultimately follow. In general, it is not a good idea to rush into a treatment plan merely as a way to reduce the understandable anxiety of having a cancer diagnosis.

Each form of cancer is different and calls for a different set of treatment approaches. This being true, there are two common approaches used to treat almost all types of cancer. These two treatments are chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy are covered here in some detail to avoid having to restate the information at length in later sections covering specific cancer subtypes.

  • Chemotherapy. Chemotherapy is one of the most commonly used methods to treat cancer patients. It is commonly prescribed for patients whose cancer is not localized but instead has possibly metastasized, or spread, to various locations in the body. Chemotherapy can be used to reduce the symptoms and pain associated with cancer as well as to slow the growth of cancerous tumors. In some circumstances chemotherapy may even kill spreading cancerous cells.

    Chemotherapy utilizes a powerful combination of drugs that are either taken by mouth or injected directly into the bloodstream. Drug doses are commonly given in a repeating pattern over a set amount of time. Treatment frequency and duration depend on the type of cancer each patient has, and the manner in which the patient tolerates and responds to the drugs. Chemotherapy drugs target cells in the body that divide and grow quickly and are usually able to destroy these cells. Unfortunately, cancer cells are not the only cells in the body which divide and replicate quickly. In addition to cancerous cells, chemotherapy drugs also kill some regular healthy cells, causing side effects such as the fatigue, nausea, and hair loss. To some extent, side effects can be controlled or alleviated with other medications or by altering the schedule of chemotherapy treatments. It is important to alert your doctor immediately if you experience side effects so that the doctor can adjust treatment to make you more comfortable. Chemotherapy can be a long and arduous process, but it does not last forever and negative side effects generally disappear upon completion of the treatment.

  • Radiation Therapy. Radiation therapy is a method of treating cancer that utilizes radiation energy. Radiation is most commonly used to treat localized cancers as opposed to cancer that has spread throughout the body. The goal of radiation therapy is to kill cancer cells or at least limit their ability to grow and divide by damaging their genetic material. Like chemotherapy, radiation therapy is not perfectly precise in its targeting of cancer cells, and some normal, healthy cells can also become damaged. Patients should not become too concerned about damage to healthy cells, however. Doctors generally do a good job shielding and protecting healthy cells surrounding cancer areas from radiation damage. Also, healthy cells that do sustain damage during radiation treatment are usually able to repair their genetic material when treatment ends.

    There are two ways in which radiation therapy can be administered: externally and internally. When delivered externally, special machines are used to project a focused beam of radiation into targeted areas of tissue within the body. Internal radiation therapy involves surgical placement of radioactive materials near cancerous tumors or afflicted body areas. When placed internally, the source of radiation is often sealed in a small compartment such as a catheter or capsule prior to implantation.