Common cancer treatments
Learn about the types of treatments that may be part of your plan
Learn about the types of treatments that may be part of your plan
Doctors use different kinds of treatments for different types of cancer. Knowing the types of treatment options may help you feel more confident when talking to your doctor about your options.
From the National Cancer Institute (NCI)
The information below is based on information originally published by the National Cancer Institute (NCI), the US government’s main agency for cancer research. You can use it to learn about treatments and help you make treatment decisions with your doctor.
Surgery, when used to treat cancer, is a procedure in which a surgeon removes cancer from your body. Depending on the type of cancer and how advanced it is, surgery may be used to remove the entire tumor, remove part of a tumor, or remove a tumor to help ease symptoms caused by cancer. Surgeons are medical doctors with special training in surgery. There are many types of surgery. Surgery may be open or minimally invasive.
Remember, every patient is different, so check with your doctor to see what is the best choice for you.
Why are you recommending surgery? What are the benefits and risks of this type of surgery? How long will recovery take? Will other treatments be paired with surgery?
Chemotherapy (also called chemo) is a type of cancer treatment that uses drugs to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy works by stopping or slowing the growth of cancer cells, which grow and divide quickly. Chemotherapy not only kills fast-growing cancer cells, but also kills or slows the growth of healthy cells that grow and divide quickly. Examples are cells that line your mouth and intestines and those that cause your hair to grow. Damage to healthy cells may cause side effects, such as mouth sores, nausea, and hair loss. Side effects often get better or go away after you have finished chemotherapy.
Chemotherapy may be given in many ways. Some common ways include:
Why are you recommending chemotherapy? What are the benefits and risks of chemotherapy? How will the medicines be given to me? Where do I go for chemotherapy?
Radiation therapy (also called radiotherapy) is a cancer treatment that uses high doses of radiation to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. Radiation therapy can be used to treat cancer or help reduce symptoms when a cure isn’t possible. At low doses, radiation is used as an x-ray to see inside your body and take pictures, such as x-rays of your teeth and broken bones.
Radiation therapy can be external beam or internal:
Why are you recommending radiation therapy? What are the benefits and risks of radiation therapy? How many weeks will my course of radiation therapy last? What kind of radiation therapy will I receive?
Immunotherapy is a type of cancer treatment that helps your immune system fight cancer. The immune system helps your body fight infections and other diseases. It is made up of white blood cells and organs and tissues of the lymph system.
Several types of immunotherapy are used to treat cancer. These include:
Why are you recommending immunotherapy? What are the benefits and risks of immunotherapy? Can immunotherapy be combined with other cancer treatments?
Targeted cancer therapy is a type of treatment that interferes with specific proteins that control the growth, division, and spread of cancer. Targeted cancer therapies are sometimes called “molecularly targeted drugs,” “molecularly targeted therapies,” “precision medicines,” or similar names.
Why are you recommending targeted therapy? What are the benefits and risks of targeted therapy? Is targeted therapy the same as chemotherapy? What types of targeted therapies are available?
Hormone therapy is a cancer treatment that slows or stops the growth of cancer that uses hormones to grow. Hormone therapy is also called hormonal therapy, hormone treatment, or endocrine therapy.
Hormone therapy may be given in many ways. Some common ways include:
Why are you recommending hormone therapy? What kind of hormone therapy are you recommending? What are the benefits and risks of hormone therapy? How should I take my hormones?
Stem cell transplants are procedures that restore blood-forming stem cells in people who have had theirs destroyed by the very high doses of chemotherapy or radiation therapy that are used to treat certain cancers. Stem cell transplants are most often used to help people with leukemia and lymphoma. They may also be used for neuroblastoma and multiple myeloma. Stem cell transplants do not usually work against cancer directly. Instead, they help you recover your ability to produce stem cells after treatment with very high doses of radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or both.
Types of stem cell transplants:
Why are you recommending a stem cell transplant? What are the benefits and risks associated with a stem cell transplant? Will there be a donor for me? How long will the stem cell transplant take?
Combination therapy is when doctors use 2 or more kinds of cancer treatments. The treatments may be given at the same time, one after the other, or in different ways.
Doctors often use combination therapy because it may work better to treat cancer than a single treatment alone. For some patients, combination therapy has a higher chance of curing cancer than a single treatment. In certain situations, using combination treatments may result in less damage to your body’s vital organs and tissues.
Doctors may use combination therapy when:
Your doctor might suggest surgery as part of your plan, and this step can influence other decisions you make about a total treatment approach. It’s important to ask if there are any additional things you may do before and/or after surgery.
During conversations, you might hear these terms:
“Neoadjuvant” describes therapies given before the main treatment, which is usually surgery. Examples include chemotherapy, radiation, hormone therapy, and immunotherapy. Any of these may be given as a first step to shrink a tumor prior to surgery.
“Adjuvant” describes therapies given after the main treatment, which is usually surgery. Examples include chemotherapy, radiation, hormone therapy, targeted therapy, or immunotherapy. These treatments may be used to lower the risk cancer will come back.
Your doctor can explain how these approaches might help create the best cancer care plan for you.
Remember, surgery may not be appropriate for everyone. Talk to your doctor and stay active in the decision-making process to create the best path forward for you.
Find your voice and be empowered by partnering with your doctorExplore how to build your care plan
Clinical trials are research studies that involve people. Through cancer clinical trials, doctors find new ways to improve treatments and the quality of life for people with disease.
Researchers design cancer clinical trials to test new ways to:
Why are you recommending a clinical trial? What are my other options? Will the researchers work along with you? How long will I be involved in the trial? What are the benefits and risks of participating in the clinical trial? Can my doctor or I pick which group I'm in?
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