Information on cancer for patients and families
Fighting disease, fighting poverty, giving hope
This short series of chapters will provide you with basic information about cancer. You can read them in sequence, or jump straight to any chapter as follows:
- What is Cancer?
- Treatment of Cancer (This page)
- How do I take care of my body during cancer?
- How do I cope with cancer?
- Further Resources
Treatment of cancer
Medical treatment of cancer
The three most common types of treatment for cancer are: surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
A cancer tumour that has not spread can be removed. This is done by a surgeon during an operation. The tumour and sometimes some more tissue is taken out. Sometimes it is followed by radiotherapy (see below).
Not all cancers can be cut out; that is where the doctors use medicines like chemotherapy.
Chemotherapy is the use of strong drugs to kill cancer cells. It is often called “chemo”. If the disease has spread in the body, or it is likely to spread, chemotherapy drugs are used. There are many types of chemotherapy, depending on the type of cancer, the stage and the patient.
Chemotherapy travels through the blood vessels and destroys the cancer cells. You can get chemotherapy as a drip, as pills or as an injection.
Sometimes, chemo is the only treatment given, but often it is given before or after surgery, or together with radiotherapy.
Chemotherapy is usually administered in cycles with rest periods in between. A cycle may last one or more days. A cycle of treatments may be administered every 1 to 4 weeks. A whole course of treatment may comprise several cycles. Each course of chemotherapy is different, but usually comprises 4 to 6 cycles.
Radiotherapy is a form of x-rays that is capable of killing the cancer cells. The x-rays are of a lot higher dose than the ones used for taking x-ray pictures. Usually the patient has many, very short treatments (5-10 minutes).
Normally it takes 1 to 8 weeks to complete, or it can be given as monthly treatments, depending on the type and stage of cancer.
Before the treatment, the doctor carefully marks the place on the body where the radiotherapy must go.
Sometimes the doctor prescribes pills that you have to take for a long time after the treatment has finished. This is to stop cancer cells from starting to grow again. Hormones can also be given as a monthly injection or drip.
How does the doctor decide what treatment is best for me?
The doctor will think about a few different things before he chooses the best way to treat your cancer:
- What type of cancer you have
- How big the cancer tumour is
- How fast the cancer is growing
- Whether cancer has spread to other parts of your body, and if so, where it has spread to and how far it has grown in these other places.
- Your age, symptoms and general health
Doctors use a lot of information to help plan treatment. Although each person’s situation is different, cancers with the same stage tend to have similar outlooks and are often treated the same way.
Why should I go for treatment?
The doctor is always trying to cure the disease completely with treatment.
Progress in cancer treatment over the past 50 years has come up with better drugs, more combinations of drugs and better use of radiotherapy.
Sometimes, though, the disease has already spread too far and the cancer cannot be cured any more. Then the aim of treatment is to control the disease for as long as possible, giving you more time to enjoy a comfortable life. This is called palliative therapy.
The doctor will tell you how likely it is that your disease can be cured, and how long the treatment will take. This is based on medical research and his experience with many people with the same condition.
Remission is a complete or partial disappearance of the cancer after treatment. The disease is under control, but is sometimes still present in the body, but “sleeping”. The doctor will check you regularly for the rest of your life.
Apart from killing the cancer cells, the treatment can also damage healthy cells. Luckily, healthy cells have the mechanism to recover. Discuss with your doctor if you experience anything unpleasant. There are medicines that help to ease the side effects.
Some side effects are:
- deformity (loss of a body part, e.g. breast)
- damage to muscles or nerves, leading to problems in moving the body properly.
- skin changes (dry, thin, stiff, sometimes a wound can develop)
- nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or loss of appetite, problems swallowing
- shortness of breath
- low red blood cells (anaemia).
- loss of hair
- low red blood cells (anaemia)
- low white blood cells (infections like pneumonia or flu are more likely)
- infertility (usually temporary, but can be permanent with certain types of chemotherapy. Ask your doctor if this is important to you.)
- nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, loss of appetite, sores in the mouth, change of taste.
Blood tests are taken regularly each week of treatment to see if you need medicines or blood transfusions to help your body recover from the treatment.
In the next chapter, you will learn more about how to take care of your body during cancer treatment, and how to cope with this difficult time.
Never hesitate to ask a question about your health, body, treatment or anything else. Do you want to know more? Ask your doctor, nurse, physiotherapist or social worker – and read the other chapters!
Page last updated: October 2018