Cancer Treatment: What Are the Options?

If you’ve recently learned you have cancer, you probably have a lot on your mind. Your doctor may have recommended a treatment plan, and you might worry about what’s involved and how it will make you feel.

It’s normal to be nervous or afraid. One way to ease some of your worries is to learn as much as you can about the treatment and what to expect afterward. It can also give you a sense of control over your disease.

You and your doctor will decide what treatment is best for you based on the type of cancer you have, where it is in your body, and how far it has spread, called the stage of your disease. But in general, there are a few types of treatment that work for many different kinds of cancer.

Here’s a look at some of the options you might have.

Surgery

Most people with cancer will have some type of surgery. The main goal is to remove tumors, tissue, or areas with cancer cells, such as lymph nodes. Doctors also may do it to diagnose the disease or find out how serious it is.

In many cases, surgery offers the best chance of getting rid of the disease, especially if it hasn’t spread to other parts of the body.

Along with a traditional operation, doctors can also fight some types of cancer with:

  • Laser surgery (beams of light)
  • Electrosurgery (electric currents)
  • Cryosurgery (very cold temperatures to freeze cancer cells)

You'll get medication to block pain during and after your surgery. You might also get other meds, such as antibiotics to lower the risk of infection.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells. There are two ways to get it:

“Traditional” Chemotherapy

You get most chemo medications through an injection into a vein.

But you can get some types as a shot in your muscle, under your skin, or as an ointment or cream to put on your skin.

The side effects vary from person to person, even if you have the same type of cancer and get the same treatment as someone else. Some of the most common issues are:

  • Fatigue
  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Hair loss
  • Mouth sores
  • Pain

Continued

Chemotherapy can sometimes cause long-lasting side effects, like infertility and nerve damage. Talk to your cancer doctor about the risks of your treatment plan and how you can avoid them.

In most cases, you’ll get your chemotherapy at an outpatient clinic. You won’t know how it will make you feel until you’ve had your first treatment. So plan to have someone to drive you home.

Oral (a.k.a. “No Needle”) Chemotherapy

With this type of treatment, you swallow a drug in liquid, tablet, or capsule form at home. It works as well as other forms of chemotherapy for some types of cancer, but not all chemo drugs can be taken by mouth. There are some that the stomach can’t absorb, and others can be harmful if you swallow them. Oral drugs can cost more out-of-pocket than traditional chemo, too.

Again, the side effects can vary, but they’re similar to the ones you’d have with regular chemo.

If your doctor recommends oral chemo, it’s important to take it exactly as prescribed. Call your doctor right away if you can’t keep your medication down because you’re vomiting.

Radiation

This common treatment uses high-energy particles or waves to destroy or damage cancer cells to keep them from spreading. It might be your only treatment, or you might get it along with surgery or chemotherapy. Most people get it in small doses at a time: 5 days a week for 6 to 7 weeks.

Radiation itself isn't painful, but afterward you may have pain, fatigue, and skin rashes around the place you got the treatment. Side effects depend on where your cancer is. For example, if you’re having head or neck radiation, you may get a dry mouth.

Other Cancer Treatments

Your doctor may recommend other options as part of your treatment plan, including:

  • Targeted therapy, in which drugs work against specific parts of cancer cells to keep them from growing or spreading.
  • Immunotherapy, also called biologic therapy, which gets the body’s immune system to fight cancer.
  • Stem cell transplants. Doctors use chemo or radiation to destroy as many cancer cells as possible, then try to replace them with healthy stem cells from bone marrow or blood.
  • Photodynamic therapy. Doctors inject a special drug into the bloodstream, then use a specific type of light to make it kill cancer cells.

With any cancer treatment, it might take a while before you know how it affects your disease. Stay in touch with your doctor and keep her in the loop about anything that doesn’t feel right. You are the most important part of your cancer care team.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by William Blahd, MD on June 27, 2016

Sources

SOURCES:

American Cancer Society: “Understanding Cancer Surgery.”

Stanford Medicine Cancer Institute: “Surgery for Cancer Treatment.”

American Cancer Society: “Oral Chemotherapy: What You Need To Know.”

University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics: “Radiation Therapy: What to Expect.”  

National Cancer Institute: “Targeted Cancer Therapies.”

American Cancer Society: “Cancer Immunotherapy.”

American Cancer Society: “Types of Stem Cells Used for Treating Cancer.”

National Cancer Institute: “Photodynamic Therapy for Cancer.”

Stewart Fleishman, MD, author, Learn to Live Through Cancer; investigator, National Cancer Institute Clinical Trials Cooperative Group Program.

Dale R. Shepard, MD, PhD, solid tumor oncologist, Cleveland Clinic.

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