What is the treatment for cancer?
Cancer is referred to a group of disease that are caused by genetic mutations in certain cells. There are a number of treatment options available for the management of the condition. This may include only a primary treatment or a combination of therapies, depending on the stage of the disease.
A patient who is diagnosed at an early stage of cancer may not need aggressive treatment and can be cured with a primary treatment.
However, advanced stages of cancer need a holistic approach with systemic treatments and adjuvant therapies. For some patients with advanced disease or certain uncurable cancers, palliative care might be the only option.
The type of treatment is determined on the basis of multiple factors, including the type and location of the tumor, stage of cancer and how aggressively it has spread, patient’s age and overall health, risks of complications and many others.
Some common cancer treatments are:
This is a common primary treatment for many types of cancer, especially at early stages. In this, the surgeon removes the mass of cancer cells, called a tumor, along with some nearby tissue, during an operation. The goal of surgery for cancer treatment can vary from total to partial removal of the tumor.
Unlike systemic treatments such as chemotherapy, in which cancer throughout the body is treated, surgery is only used for the treatment of cancers located in a specific area. Surgery can also be done to relieve side effects caused by a tumor. It is combined with other therapies and treatments to give the best results.
A biopsy is a minor surgical procedure, in which the doctor removes a small sample of tissue from a tumor, to determine its stage and type. The surgery can be done with an open (involves a larger incision) or minimally invasive or laparoscopic approach (with smaller incisions and special instruments).
There are other surgical methods that involve different approaches, such as cryosurgery that destroys cancer cells with cold temperatures.
Chemotherapy refers to the treatment in which drugs are used to kill cancer cells. The drugs can be administered via the mouth or directly into a blood vessel through IV. There are different types of drugs that can be given together at the same time or one after the other.
Chemotherapy is one of the most common treatment options for many types of cancers. It is considered a systemic treatment, unlike surgery and radiation, as the drugs travel throughout the body, and kill cancer cells that have metastasized or spread to parts of the body far away from the primary tumor site.
Chemotherapy can have multiple goals: It may help cure cancer, prevent the tumor from reoccurring, prevent it from spreading to other parts of the body, and/or delay its growth.
The therapy may also help shrink large tumors, relieve pain as well as other cancer-related symptoms. Chemotherapy can be combined with other treatment methods, such as surgery.
Chemotherapy involves the use of anti-cancer drugs that work by destroying cancer cells. They may also harm some healthy cells in the process, and chemotherapy may cause some side effects that need to be managed.
These side effects include fatigue, mouth sores, stomach problems and hair loss. The newer drugs, as well as processes, are being researched to overcome this problem.
Radiation therapy is a treatment in which high-energy rays, particles, or radioactive seeds are used to kill the cancer cells. As cancer cells divide faster than normal cells of the body, their uncontrolled growth forms a tumor.
As radiation can be harmful to quickly growing cells, this therapy aims to damage the cancer cells more than normal cells. It will prevent the cancer cells from growing and dividing and ultimately lead to cell death.
Radiation therapy is of mainly two types:
- External beam radiation therapy: This is the most commonly used form of radiation. In this, x-rays or particles are targeted at the tumor from outside the body.
- Internal beam radiation therapy: In this form of therapy, radiation is delivered inside the body through radioactive material or seeds that are placed into or near the tumor. It can be given in a liquid or pill that is swallowed or through a vein (intravenous, or IV).
Targeted therapy involves the use of special drugs that stop the growth and spread of cancer. These drugs are designed especially to do this with less harm to normal cells than other treatments.
Chemotherapy works by killing the cancer cells as well as some normal cells, but targeted treatment is focused on specific targets that are present in cancer cells.
These targets are molecules that play a role in the growth and division of cancer cells. By focusing on these targets, the drug will only affect the cancer cells, and not the normal healthy cells. It can be given as a pill or IV.
Targeted therapy drugs work in many ways, including:
- Stop the process by which cancer cells grow and spread
- Trigger cell death (on their own) in cancer cells
- Kill the cancer cells directly
Immunotherapy is a cancer treatment in which the body’s ability to fight infection with the immune system is used to fight the tumor. The substances used in this therapy are made by the body or in a lab. They are designed to help the immune system work better in identifying and targeting cancer cells.
They target certain parts of a cancer cell or have toxins or radioactive substances attached to them to harm the tumor. Immunotherapy is administered through an IV.
Immunotherapy works in many ways, including:
- Stop or slow the growth of cancer cells
- Boost the immune system’s ability to fight cancer cells
- Prevent the spread of cancer from primary organ to other parts of the body
Hormone therapy is a type of cancer treatment typically used to treat cancers in parts of the body that are associated with hormones, such as breast, prostate, and ovarian cancers. It may involve the use of surgery or drugs to stop or block the body’s natural hormones that are supporting cancer growth.
It helps slow the growth of cancer cells. In the surgery, the organs that make hormones, such as the ovaries or testes, are removed. The drugs are given as pills or injected directly.
Hyperthermia is a technique in which heat is used to damage and kill cancer cells without harming normal cells. The heat is delivered to the targeted region via a machine placed outside the body or through a needle or probe placed in the tumor. It can be used to treat:
- A small area of cells or a small tumor
- A part of the body affected by cancer, such as an organ or limb
- The whole body
In laser therapy, a very narrow, focused beam of light is used to get rid of the cancer cells. This type of therapy can be used to:
- Destroy tumors and certain precancerous growths
- Shrink tumors that might be blocking the stomach, colon, or esophagus
- Help treat some symptoms of cancer, such as bleeding
- Seal the nerve endings after the tumor is removed during surgery to reduce pain
- Seal lymph vessels after surgery to reduce swelling and keep tumor cells from spreading
Laser therapy is often given through a thin, lighted tube that is inserted inside the body. The tube has thin fibers at the end, through which the light is directed at the cancer cells. Lasers can also be used on the skin. Lasers are usually used with other types of cancer treatment, such as radiation and chemotherapy.
Photodynamic therapy involves the use of a drug that is given as a shot and is sensitive to a special type of light. The drug goes into cancer cells longer than the normal, healthy cells.
The light is directly exposed from a laser or other source at the cancer cells. The light triggers a process that modifies the drug to a substance that kills the cancer cells.
Cryosurgery or therapy uses very cold gas to freeze and kill cancer cells. It has also been used to treat pre-cancerous cells, the cells that might turn into cancer, on the skin or cervix. A special instrument is used to deliver cryotherapy to tumors inside the body, such as the liver or prostate.
Palliative treatments or care help relieve side effects of treatment or some signs and symptoms of cancer itself. All other treatments, including surgery, radiation, chemotherapy and hormone therapy are also used to relieve symptoms.
These medications relieve symptoms such as pain and shortness of breath. Palliative care can be given at the same time as other treatments to cure the cancer.