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How to Find the Best Cancer Treatment

Get answers to 10 commonly asked questions about clinical trials, where to get cancer treatment, and more.

My friend had the same kind of cancer I have. Should I expect the same treatment, prognosis, and side effects?

Maybe not. Every person is different, so every cancer is different -- even those that seem on the surface to be exactly the same. "What was right for your friend might not be right for you, and what happened to your friend may not happen to you," Saltz says.

Besides, cancer treatment is evolving at a rapid pace. Your friend may have had one kind of treatment for her cancer five years ago, and since then, a new drug may have emerged that improves on the old treatment regimen.

Side effects may vary, too.

"We don't know how to figure out who will have an easy time with treatment and who won't," Saltz says. "There's a particular type of chemotherapy I use regularly, with a long list of possible side effects. Some people get all of them, and some people get virtually none of them, and most are in the middle. I've had people who haven't missed a day of work, people who are incapacitated, and everywhere in between. And there's no way to anticipate who will have what experience.

Fortunately, just as cancer treatments have evolved, so have the tools for managing their side effects. For example, there are newer drugs for nausea that have helped to minimize or even eliminate this very common and much-dreaded side effect of chemotherapy.

 

What is my prognosis? What are my odds of survival? Am I going to die?

Your cancer prognosis depends on a lot of things: how early or late the cancer was diagnosed and how advanced it is, how common or rare it is, how difficult it is to treat, and how healthy you are otherwise.

In general, cancers are "staged" with numbers ranging from 0 to 4, and the lower the stage number, the better. If your cancer has metastasized -- that is, spread beyond the original organ where it started to other parts of your body, like the lungs, liver, or brain --the prognosis is not as good as with an early stage cancer.

A particular cancer may be hard to treat if, for example, the tumor is close to or even wrapped around a vital organ, making it difficult or impossible to remove completely without irreparably damaging the organ. And if you're otherwise very healthy, you may be able to withstand a more aggressive course of treatment that has a better chance of wiping out your cancer compared to someone who's frail and has a lot of other illnesses.

But ultimately, a prognosis is just a number. "Prognosis is an art, not a science," Lichtenfeld says.

"You're never going to find what you're looking for when you try to find out your chances of survival with a particular cancer," Saltz says. "You're not going to find the one paper that says, 'Don't worry, I have all the answers and if you do this, everything will be OK.' No matter what, you'll find numbers that will be upsetting. If it isn't a 100% chance of cure, it won't make you happy -- and with cancer, that's virtually never the case. I try to avoid numbers and prognoses and focus on a plan for treatment."

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