Here is a list of the various common treatments that are available for cancer patients today. Usually, but not always, a patient will be told their treatment plan. This will vary according to the individual (their age, situation, any underlying conditions etc), the type of cancer they have and the stage at which it was discovered.
The statistics that you will find or hear about regarding the prognosis of the cancer type is ‘group statistic’ NOT an ‘individual statistic’. Do not be disheartened as you are an individual with your own case and your own strong will.
What? Chemotherapy is the delivery of strong drugs directly to your blood. Usually the medication is in an I.V. bag or bottle or even in needle form and is injected into the vein. This is because when medication is given directly into the blood, it is more effective. But chemotherapy can also be given in pill form. Chemotherapy has come a long way and is constantly improving so you can rest assured that doctors are always delivering the best and most up-to-date medication available for your type of cancer. Each type of medication in chemotherapy will be different in different types of cancer and sometimes, it will be given in a combination (i.e. a cocktail of different drugs).
How? A session of chemotherapy usually begins with a blood test to check that your body is ready and it is safe to receive the treatment. You will go into hospital (some of you from home) and simple sit or lay down on one of the hospital beds for a few hours while delivery of the medication completes. As the medication is most likely a liquid, you will need to go to the bathroom to urinate every once in a while so it is important to drink a lot of water to clear the excess medication out of your system.
Why? Because cancer cells are known to divide faster than normal cells chemo medication will be used as a way to slow them down. It also shrinks the tumour or cancer and is sometimes used as a ‘clean up’ to make sure there are no more actively dividing cells in your system. However, chemotherapy medication cannot tell the difference between ‘normal cells’ and ‘cancer cells’ most of the time which is why your whole body will feel the effects of the chemo.
When? How long you will receive the treatment for and how many times daily, weekly or monthly will also depend on your doctor’s orders and your type and stage of cancer. It is important to remember that every patient is different and has different needs and reactions to the medication they receive. Thankfully, most of these side effects may be controlled to some extent. However, most patients taking chemotherapy may suffer from these side effects:
- Hair loss in all areas of the body
- Dry skin or rashes
- Immunosuppression- a weakness or complete loss of an immune system
- Appearance of ‘aft’ or ulceration in the mouth (visiting the dentist is a must before starting chemo)
- Mood swings or change in emotion
- Fertility problems
- Nose bleeds
- Weight loss or weight gain
Check the Advice for patients section for advice on dealing with Chemotherapy.
What? Targeted therapy is currently one of the more advanced forms of cancer treatment. This will likely be the future of cancer treatment. Unlike most other forms of treatment, it is non-invasive and specific. The medication is able to identify actual cancer cells and attack them without harming any of the normal cells of the body. They enter the cancer cell only and mess up the internal systems. For the most part, they stop the way cancer cells are growing by interfering with their ability to interact, divide, replicate or repair itself. So far, targeted therapy can only be used for specific types of cancer such as pancreatic cancer, head and neck cancer, liver, breast, colon and kidney cancers.
How? Usually this form of treatment will come in pill form and it will simply be a matter of ingesting the pill.
What? Hormone therapy is usually used to treat ‘hormone-sensitive’ cancers such as prostate, breast, kidney or uterine cancer. The medication contains natural hormone blockers. This is functional for those who are responsive to the treatment.
How? If a cancer is hormone-sensitive or dependant, it needs those hormones to grow and they act almost like food. Hormone therapy stops the hormones from being formed or reaching the cancer cells so they can’t grow anymore. For example, the drug ‘Tamoxifen’ blocks the hormone estrogen which allows encourages breast cancer cells to grow.
Some side effects felt during hormone therapy may include:
· Joint and bone pain
· Digestive problems
· Menopausal problems
Surgery may be used in diagnosing Cancer or in treating it.
When surgery is used to diagnose cancer, doctors will often remove a piece of tissue from the body (a biopsy) to check whether the tissue is cancerous or not, what type it is and how fast it might be growing. This is usually done in a lab and is a very important step so the doctor can have a full picture of the cancer at hand. They might also choose to perform open surgery in order to take a closer look or see the extent of the damage. If cancer has spread to another part of the body (metastasized), there is less of a chance that surgery can cure it.
Some cancers are operable whereas others are not- for example; it is not possible to perform surgery on leukaemia or lymphoma cases. When surgery is an option, it usually offers the best chance for a cure. You will need to discuss these options with your doctor.
What? Radiation therapy is a local, more focused form of treatment. Radiation or radio waves target specific cancer cells in your body to kill them, reduce their size or slow them down. These rays are invisible so you cannot see them; similar to an x-ray but very much stronger. Radiation does not cause pain, only fatigue and discomforts depending on the area which is being targeted. Cancer cells cannot repair themselves so more of them are hit, the more of them die for good and your body becomes rid of them. Radiotherapy is especially effective in attacking lump cancers or tumours (not for those that are widespread).
How? There will be a good deal of preparation before you receive radiotherapy because the doctor and radiology therapists will need to know the precise location of the target. You will not normally be required to sleep at the hospital.
This therapy typically involves coming into the hospital and being placed under a machine while doses of radiation are being delivered (external). The patient will generally be positioned or stabilized on the radiation machine bed and then all staff will exit the room. There will only be sounds, some loud sounds but nothing should be felt. A session might typically last no more than 30 minutes. In effect the radiation is burning through the skin, like the sun, you cannot see the damage being done to the inside of your body. Like chemotherapy, radiation might also affect the normal cells surrounding the area in which the cancer is or was previously contained leaving the area very sensitive. Therefore, it is worth using moisturisers on the skin being radiated; Advice for patients.
At times, radiation would be given internally by placing a ‘radiated’ object within you that emits radiowaves and destroys the cells. This will be inserted surgically and might or might not be removed depending on the case at hand.
Why? This form of treatment is sometimes given as the only form of treatment, as a standalone. But sometimes, it is given with other types of treatment such as surgery or chemotherapy to make sure all the cells are dead. It is a bit like a sweep up or extra cleaning service.
When? Radiation is measured in rads. Depending on your treatment plan, your doctor should tell you how many rads you will receive and how long it will take (anywhere from weeks to months). But in order for the cells not to get too much rest, radiation will take place every working day of the week with a break on weekends. As radiation progresses you might gradually feel weaker and weaker, more tired, as if you had run a marathon.
Side effects of radiotherapy will be different depending on the area of the body receiving the radiation. You might also notice the following:
- Nausea and Vomiting
- Emotional, anxious or depressed
- Severe Fatigue
- Redness/Darkness or pain of the skin being radiated; dry skin
- Fertility and sexual problems
- Voice, ability to swallow, weight loss (if in head and neck area)
- Hair loss (if in brain area)
- Breathlessness and swallowing difficulties (if in the chest)
- Diarrhoea or bladder problems (if in stomach region)