There are many cancer treatments available to patients, with new cancer treatments in clinical trials every day. Cancer treatment typically depends on the type of cancer, and certain treatments are only applicable to cancers with certain “markers.” While this may seem confusing, the vast majority of cancer treatments fit into a few categories, namely immunotherapy, chemotherapy (both classical and molecularly defined), radiation therapy, hormonal therapy and surgery. Here’s a breakdown of the different cancer treatments and what you need to know.
The body’s natural immune system works to eliminate abnormal cells in the body, but some cancers are particularly adept at avoiding immune responses. Tumors can have proteins that allow them to evade detection by the immune system or can alter the cells around them to interfere with the immune response. Immunotherapy works to boost the body’s natural immune response to cancer, often by enhancing the overall immune system or reducing the natural “checkpoints” that the immune system utilizes to prevent dangerous immune responses. Some forms of immunotherapy also involve creating specific cancer antibodies in a lab to educate and bolster the immune system.
Immunotherapy is being used effectively for a wide range of cancers but is still relatively new compared to traditional cancer treatments like chemotherapy and radiation therapy. However, immunotherapy holds great potential for personalized, effective cancer treatment and is the largest area of growth today for cancer treatment.
Chemotherapy (Classical and Molecularly Targeted)
Chemotherapy is an effective cancer treatment that uses medication to kill or reduce cancer cells. Many people are familiar with chemotherapy, because it has been a first-line cancer treatment for decades. Chemotherapy can completely eliminate cancer cells and may be the only treatment that a cancer patient receives, or chemotherapy can be used to reduce the size of a tumor to increase the odds of a successful surgical removal. For advanced cancers with no other treatment options, chemotherapy can also be used to temporarily relieve symptoms and increase life expectancy.
While classical chemotherapy can be a life-saving cancer treatment, it often comes with some unpleasant side effects. Chemotherapy affects the way that cancer cells divide and multiply, but it can also impact healthy cells in the process. For this reason, patients may experience nausea, hair loss or fatigue, which can make it necessary to alter daily routines or work schedules. Nevertheless, chemotherapy is still the gold standard of treatment for many forms of cancer because of its favorable outcomes. More recently, many forms of molecularly targeted therapies have been discovered and approved. They are much more specific than the traditional chemotherapies and target the actual control mechanisms that regulate the growth, proliferation and spread of cancer cells. This represents an area of cancer treatment with virtually limitless options as we learn more and more about the genes that regulate cancer in children and adults.
Radiation therapy works to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors with high amounts of radiation. The goal of radiation therapy is to damage the DNA of cancer cells to the point that the cancer cells can no longer divide and ultimately die, prompting the body to remove them. While radiation therapy can be an effective cancer treatment in certain cancers, it takes time and repeated radiation sessions to yield the necessary damage to cancer cells. Then, it takes months for all of the cells to die and for the body to completely remove the dead cells.
The primary drawbacks to radiation therapy are the side effects and the safety limits for lifetime exposure to radiation. Radiation therapy can affect both the cancer cells and nearby healthy cells, causing a lot of internal damage. Depending on where the radiation therapy is administered, you can have a wide range of side effects from headaches to fertility problems. Regardless of where your cancer is located, it is very likely that you will experience fatigue as your body works to repair the damage.
Luckily, side effects usually fade away in the months that follow radiation therapy, and radiation therapy can cure or shrink your cancer significantly.
During surgical cancer treatment, a surgeon removes a tumor or cancer cells from your body. Surgery can be very effective for local cancers and can even eliminate your cancer without additional treatment. Surgeons can also use different devices, like lasers, to kill abnormal cells. Surgical treatment works best for localized cancer and is not effective for blood-borne cancers, such as lymphoma or leukemia, or cancers that have metastasized (spread) to other locations in the body.
Often, surgery is used in combination with chemotherapy or radiation therapy. Surgery may be done first to remove the primary tumor and followed by chemotherapy or radiation to kill additional cancer cells. Or, surgery may be done after chemotherapy or radiation therapy has reduced the size of a tumor.
For local cancers, surgery can be a very effective treatment with few side effects. Catching cancer in its early stages can reduce the chances that the cancer has metastasized and increase the efficacy of surgery and overall survival.
For specific types of cancer that are reliant on hormones to grow, hormone therapy can be a treatment option. Certain types of breast cancer and prostate cancer fall into this category and can be treated with hormonal medications. Medications that block hormones do not cause the same destruction to healthy cells as radiation therapy and chemotherapy, but the impact on hormones is likely to cause temporary hormonal imbalances and corresponding side effects, such as hot flashes and changes to libido.
Genetic Testing and New Advances
With increased genetic testing and other medical advances, new cancer treatments are being tested every day. Some promising cancer treatments include the molecularly targeted therapies briefly mentioned earlier, which attack the specific changes in cancer cells that allow them to multiply and genetic therapies for cancer, including precision medicine and biomarker testing. Understanding the specific genetic qualities of different cancers can help doctors provide the most effective and precise treatment with as few side effects and as little impact to healthy cells as possible.