Cancer Treatment

Last updated by Peer reviewed by Dr Hannah Gronow
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Treatment options vary, depending on the type of cancer and how far it has grown and spread. The main types are surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

Treatment options vary, depending on the type of cancer and how far it has grown and spread. See the separate leaflets on the specific cancers for more details. There is also another leaflet called Staging and Grading Cancer, which discusses how a cancer is classified depending on its type (grading) and how far it has spread in the body (staging). Briefly, the three most common treatments are:

  • Surgery. It may be possible to cut out a cancerous (malignant) tumour.
  • Chemotherapy. This is a treatment that uses anti-cancer medicines to kill cancer cells, or to stop them from multiplying. There are various different types of medicines used for chemotherapy. The medicine or combination of medicines selected depends on the type of cancer being treated.
  • Radiotherapy. This is a treatment that uses high-energy beams of radiation which are focused on cancerous tissue. This kills cancer cells, or stops cancer cells from multiplying.

More recently, other treatments have been introduced which include:

  • Stem cell transplant. High-dose chemotherapy may damage bone marrow cells and lead to blood problems. However, if you receive healthy bone marrow after the chemotherapy then this helps to overcome this problem.
  • Hormone therapy. This is the use of medicines to block the effects of hormones. This treatment may be used for cancers that are hormone-sensitive such as some cancers of the breast, prostate and womb (uterus).
  • Immunotherapy. Some treatments can boost the immune system to help to fight cancer. More specific immunotherapy involves injections of antibodies which aim to attack and destroy certain types of cancer cells. Research is underway to try to find vaccines that would stimulate your own immune system to make antibodies against cancer cells.
  • Gene therapy. This is a new area of possible treatments. Research is underway to find ways of blocking, repairing or replacing abnormal genes in cancer cells.
  • Special techniques. These can sometimes be used to cut off the blood supply to tumours. The tumour then dies.

For some cancers, a combination of two or more treatments may be used. A range of other treatments may also be used to ease cancer-related symptoms such as pain.

What are the aims of treatment?

The aims of treatment can vary, depending on the cancer type, size, spread, etc. For example:

  • Treatment aims to cure the cancer in many cases. With modern medicines and therapies, many cancers can be cured, particularly if they are treated in the early stages of the disease. (Doctors tend to use the word remission rather than the word cured. Remission means there is no evidence of cancer following treatment. If you are in remission, you may be cured. However, in some cases a cancer returns months or years later. This is why doctors are sometimes reluctant to use the word cured.)
  • Treatment may aim to control the cancer. If a cure is not realistic, with treatment it is often possible to limit the growth or spread of the cancer so that it progresses less rapidly. This may keep you free of symptoms for some time.
  • Treatment may aim to ease symptoms in some cases. Even if a cure is not possible, a course of radiotherapy, an operation, or other techniques may be used to reduce the size of a cancer, which may ease symptoms such as pain. If a cancer is advanced then you may require treatments such as nutritional supplements, painkillers, or other techniques to help keep you free of pain or other symptoms.

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Further reading and references