How is cancer treated?
How is cancer treated?

If you are diagnosed with cancer, your doctor’s choice of treatment will depend on many factors, including:

  • The type, location and stage of the cancer
  • Your physical condition, including age and other health problems

Determining the stage of cancer helps define the likelihood of success in treatment. The stage of a cancer is determined by:

  • The tumor (size, location, and depth of invasion)
  • Whether it has spread to lymph nodes
  • Whether it has spread to other parts of the body (metastases)

Treatment options depend on these factors and may include:

  • Surgery
  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiation therapy
  • Any combination of the three

Chemotherapy employs so-called “anti-cancer” drugs to treat cancer. These drugs may be given orally (pills and capsules) or intravenously (by injection or IV drip). At its best, chemotherapy destroys cancer cells by interfering with their ability to grow and multiply. Chemotherapy is a “systemic” treatment. It affects the whole body, including both normal and cancerous cells. Your doctor will describe the potential side effects of chemotherapy before giving you any of these drugs.

Radiation therapy (or radiotherapy) employs high-energy radiation to treat cancer. This high-energy radiation concentrates the dosage on the tumor, while sparing non-cancerous tissues. Radiation damages cancerous cells, causing them to die. Unlike chemotherapy, radiation therapy is a “local” treatment. It affects only the tumor and a small surrounding area. Rapidly dividing normal cells like blood cells are especially at risk and this can limit the amount of chemotherapy given. Your doctor will describe the potential side effects of radiation therapy before administering it.

How well cancers respond to these treatments is an ongoing and active area of research. Often response is best with a combination of chemotherapy and radiation therapy together.

Bone marrow and stem call transplants are often needed with the strongest treatments. Higher doses of strong chemotherapy and radiation therapy can destroy too many of the normal cells that are required for life. Transplants involve taking normal cells from one person (the donor) and placing them into the cancer patient (the recipient) after the aggressive treatments. The cancer patient recovers from this treatment with the help of the donor’s normal cells. Doctors search for a “close match” to prevent the immune system from recognizing the transplanted cells as foreign and attacking them.

To learn more:

Bone Marrow Transplantation and Peripheral Blood Stem Cell Transplantation: Questions and Answers
(National Cancer Institute)
This page covers the use of bone marrow and stem cells in the treatment of cancer. Uses a question and answer format. Gives information for donors and patients. Phone numbers and address are given for the National Marrow Donor Programs.
Cancer Chemotherapy
This page lists links to sites reviewed by medical librarians.
Chemotherapy and You: A Guide to Self-Help During Cancer Treatment
(National Cancer Institute)
This is a comprehensive guide for the patient. Includes sections on understanding chemotherapy, what to expect, coping with side effects, and eating well. It also talks about other therapies and getting support. A list of questions to ask your doctor and hints for talking with your doctors are helpful.
Thinking About Complementary and Alternative Medicine: A Guide for People With Cancer
(National Cancer Institute)
This site gives good advice on the use of complementary and alternative medicine in cancer treatment. Offers questions to ask about treatments, where to find more information, and how these treatments are being investigated by the National Cancer Institute.
Chemotherapy and You: Support for People With Cancer
(National Cancer Institute)
This article will help people who are going through chemotherapy and people who care for them. In an easy-to-read format, it tells you what to watch for, what to tell your doctor about, how to eat, and how to talk about your feelings.
Radiation Therapy and You: a Guide to Self-Help During Cancer Treatment
(National Cancer Institute)
This is a comprehensive guide for the patient. Includes sections on what to expect, managing side effects, and follow-up care. Tips on how to eat and how to care for your skin and mouth during radiation therapy are useful.
Types of Treatments
(National Cancer Institute)
You can find reports on common cancer treatments here. The list is organized by topic: surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and other treatments. Lasers, light therapy, bone marrow transplants, are among the other treatment methods.
What Is Cancer?
(National Cancer Institute)
This is a good place to begin learning about cancer. It tells you what cancer is, how it is diagnosed, and how it is treated. You can find out about possible causes and prevention and learn what to expect if you or someone you know has cancer. The section on "Preparing for Treatment" includes a list of questions to ask before treatment. Some medical terms are linked to definitions. This is long, but content titles on the left make it easy to find a part that interests you.

Clinical Trials

Clinical trials allow scientists and doctors to test new ways to treat illnesses. They are also an option for people to try something new at less cost. If you have cancer, you might want to consider participating in a clinical trial. The following links may help you decide if you want to be in a clinical trial.
Learn About Clinical Studies
(National Library of Medicine)
Explains clinical trials in a question and answer format. Presents lots of information that patients and their families will want to know if they are thinking about enrolling in a clinical trial. A list of questions to ask your doctor or the people doing the study is very helpful.
Coalition of National Cancer Cooperative Groups
This Web site will help you begin to learn more about cancer clinical trials, and the Coalition of National Cancer Cooperative Groups, and will help you decide if a trial is right for you, a friend or a loved one. There is information for patients and caregivers, the medical community, and patient advocates. Select Learn About Clinical Trials below the text on the home page. The next page offers choices like the ABCs of Clinical Trials, Questions to Ask Your Doctor, Common Misconceptions, and more along the left side. Select Trial List for a complete listing of trials from the National Cancer Institute's site.
Clinical trials
(National Cancer Institute)
On the National Cancer Institute's site, you can learn what clinical trials are and how they are used to help patients and to find better treatments for cancer. If you want to consider being in a clinical trial, this is a good site to visit with your doctor or health care professional to find out if trials are available. Select Finding Clinical Trials for links to information about particular trials.
Breast Cancer: Novartis Clinical Trials
(Novartis Pharmaceuticals USA)
Novartis is a pharmaceutical company conducting clinical trials for new cancer treatments. They are seeking people to participate in clinical trials to test the safety and effectiveness of their products. Here you can learn about these trials and decide if you are interested in participating. If so, share the information with your doctor to determine if this is right for you.
PDQ (Physician Data Query)
(National Cancer Institute)
One way to learn about clinical trials is through PDQ, a computerized system developed by the National Cancer Institute. PDQ contains information about cancer treatment, screening, prevention, genetics, and supportive care, plus a current list of trials all over the nation. You may also call the Cancer Information Service at 1-800-4-CANCER for answers to your questions about cancer, tips to prevent cancer, help with quitting smoking, and informational materials.

next » Where can people with cancer get help and information?

Written by: Nancy C. McKeehan, M.S.L.S.
Reviewed by: Jeffrey G. Schultze, M.D.
Last Modified: Tuesday February 14, 2017 10:56 AM