Cancer Treatment FAQ (Surgery, Chemotherapy, Radiotherapy, Immunotherapy)

Cancer treatments are among the more well funded and extensively researched areas of medicine as the incidence of certain cancers increases across the globe. Almost everyday there are new breakthroughs on different aspects of cancer treatment for specific cancers and at times there is also significant misinformation about treatment options. There are pros and cons to cancer treatment but the bottom line is that properly administered treatments that are well managed in the early stages of cancer is life saving.

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What is cancer treatment?

Cancer treatment is the medical and/or surgical therapies utilized in removing, slowing and/or destroying a malignant tumor. A malignancy, also known as cancer, is a condition where cells become abnormal and start multiplying uncontrollably. As a result it invades and destroys healthy tissue and has the ability to spread to various parts of the body. Eventually it can lead to death. Cancer treatment aims to counteract a malignancy.

Is cancer treatment a cure?

There is no single cure for all types of cancer. Therefore cancer treatments are not an ‘all-in-one cure’. However, some cancer treatments can be curative for specific types of cancers particularly in the early stages. The success of treatment depends on various factors including the type and stage of the cancer. Understandably aggressive cancers have a poorer prognosis as do advanced cancers especially where there is spread to distant sites. Despite repeated claims of complementary therapies to cure cancer, none have been validated with scientific evidence.

What are the types of cancer treatments?

Cancer treatment is broadly divided into surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy (radiotherapy). A newer approach to cancer treatment involves utilizing the defense capabilities of the immune system. Each modality acts in a different way to achieve the same goal, namely to destroy or remove the cancer or at the very least retard its growth.

How does cancer surgery work?

Surgery for cancer aims to remove the malignant tumor (cancerous growth) by surgically cutting it out (excision). Depending on the location and possibility of spread, an entire organ where the cancer originates may be removed and the surrounding lymph nodes may also be excised. While there is no definitive cure for cancer, surgery may be considered curative when the entire cancer is successfully removed. However, there is always a possibility of recurrence.

How does chemotherapy work?

Chemotherapy is the administration of drugs to slow the growth of the cancerous tumor or to destroy it. These drugs target cancer cells specifically but healthy cells may also be affected. Chemotherapy has a systemic effect meaning that it is distributed throughout the body and can target cancer cells at various sites. Usually chemotherapy is used alongside surgery and/or radiation therapy. In some cancers in the early stages it can be curative but recurrence is still possible.

How does radiation therapy work?

Radiation therapy, also referred to as radiotherapy, is where radiation is used to destroy cancer cells. Radiation damages the DNA of cells and thereby kills it. While cancer cells are more sensitive to it, even healthy cells can be damaged and destroyed by radition. Therefore in radiation therapy the beams of ionizing radiation are narrowly focused on the tumor. It may be used alongside chemotherapy or surgery.

How does immunotherapy work?

Immunotherapy works by utilizing the immune system to target the cancer cells. This is also referred to as biologic therapy but only applies to some types of immunotherapy. The body’s immune system is constantly combatting cancer cells even in a healthy person. Immunotherapy either boosts the immune system to increase its normal anti-cancer activity or it ‘trains’ the immune system to identify and destroy cancer cells specifically.

Will the cancer stop spreading with treatment?

Depending on various factors, the cancer can stop spreading with successful treatment. The spread of cancer is either through direct infiltration of neighboring healthy tissue. Alternatively it can enter the bloodstream or lymphatic system and spread throughout the body which is known as metastasis or metastatic spread. If the cancer is not eradicated with treatment, then the goal is to prevent it from spreading to distant sites.

Can cancer be treated once it spreads?

When cancer cells enter the bloodstream or lymphatic system and spreads to distant site then the prognosis is poor. This means that while it may still be treated, the treatment is unlikely to be curative. Eventually the cancer will develop at other sites where these cancer cells lodge. It can be widespread throughout most of the body and this will eventually lead to death. Treatment in these cases are often palliative rather than curative.

What does palliative and curative mean in cancer treatment?

The term palliative means to ease symptoms. Sometimes cancer treatments are done for palliation. This means that it helps to ease some of the symptoms of cancer and may help prolong a person’s life for short periods. Palliative therapy is conducted in patients who cannot be effectively treated since the cancer has spread. Curative refers to the complete eradication of the cancer. This is more likely to occur when cancer is detected early, has not spread and is promptly treated. However, there is still the possibility of cancer recurring.

Do cancer treatments have side effects?

Like any medical or surgical treatment, there are side effects of cancer treatments. Some of these side effects can be severe. The side effects are often short-lived and the benefits of treatment outweighs the side effects. In order to minimize the severity of these side effects many other therapies may be simultaneously administered. Despite the side effects, it is important that cancer patients understand that treatment can be life-saving.

How to ease cancer treatment side effects?

Always speak to a cancer specialist (oncologist) about ways to manage and relieve the side effects of cancer treatments. Avoid home remedies as some of these treatments could impede the effectiveness of cancer drugs (chemotherapy), worsen symptoms or even lead to complications. There is often a misconception that herbal remedies are natural and therefore not dangerous. However, this is untrue. Herbs contain chemicals that can have drug interactions or cause symptoms of its own in a cancer patient.

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