How is cancer treated?
There are several different types of cancer treatment.
Some are used to treat cancer in a particular (local) area of the body. These are called local treatments. They include surgery and radiotherapy. Other treatments can treat cancer in more than one part of the body at a time. These are called systemic treatments. Chemotherapy, hormonal therapy and biological therapy generally work in this way.
The main types of treatment for cancer are described here. It’s quite common for a combination of treatments to be used.
An operation to remove the tumour is the main treatment for many types of cancer.
Surgery is most likely to be used if the cancer is only in one area of the body and has not spread. It can sometimes be used to remove a cancer that has spread to another area of the body, but this is less common.
Radiotherapy uses high energy x-rays to destroy cancer cells. The radiation is targeted at the area affected by cancer so that it does as little harm as possible to normal cells. One of the most common side effects is tiredness. Other side effects depend on the part of the body being treated.
Chemotherapy uses anti-cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells.
There are more than 50 different chemotherapy drugs. Sometimes treatment is with just one chemotherapy drug but often two or more drugs are given together. This is known as combination chemotherapy. The type of chemotherapy treatment you are given depends on the type of cancer you have.
Chemotherapy can cause various side effects depending on which drug (or combination of drugs) is used. However, there are many ways of preventing or reducing the side effects of chemotherapy.
Hormones are natural substances made by the body that control the growth and activity of certain cells. Some cancers depend on particular hormones in order to grow. Hormonal therapies reduce the levels of these hormones in the body or block the hormones from reaching cancer cells. This shrinks the cancer and stops it growing.
Biological therapies work in various ways to destroy cancer cells. They can:
stimulate the body’s defences (immune system) to attack the cancer
attach to particular types of cells (including cancer cells) in the body so that they die
interfere with a cancer’s ability to grow
stop a tumour from making its own blood supply so it can’t get the oxygen and nutrients it needs.
Some biological therapies will do just one of these things while others may use two or more of these methods to attack the cancer.
Biological therapies can be given different names according to how they work. Some of the main types of biological therapies used to treat cancer are monoclonal antibodies, cancer growth inhibitors and angiogenesis inhibitors. Research is trying to discover whether other types of biological therapy such as vaccines and gene therapy can be used to treat cancer. This type of research is in the very early stages.
We have more information on cancer treatments and also on clinical trials.