Cancer is the name given to a group of diseases characterized by abnormal cell growth. It can start anywhere in the body and has the potential to spread to other body parts.
Cancers are grouped based on the type of cells they began in. These groups include:
- Carcinoma: cancer that starts in the epithelial cells of the skin, or the tissue lining internal organs, such as the liver or kidneys.
- Sarcoma: cancer that begins in the bones and soft tissues, such as fat, muscle, blood vessels, tendons, and ligaments.
- Leukemia: cancer that starts in the blood-forming tissues, including the bone marrow.
- Lymphoma: cancer that begins in the lymphatic system, which is part of the immune system.
- Brain tumor: an abnormal mass of tissue in the brain, that may be benign or malignant.
Types of cancer treatment
There are various types of cancer treatment available. Your doctor will discuss these treatment options with you to determine which is best for your situation.
While most people have a combination of treatments, some have just one treatment. The treatment(s) you receive will depend on factors such as the type of cancer you have, how advanced it is, your overall health, and your preferences.
Surgery is the first option in the treatment of many solid malignant tumors. It is most effective at completely removing cancer that is at an early stage, is only in the place where it started (localized), and hasn’t spread to other parts of the body. Surgery can be used to:
- Remove the entire malignant tumor
- Reduce the size of a tumor to make other treatments like chemotherapy or radiotherapy more effective
- Find out the amount of cancer in the body and how far it has spread, which is a method of staging known as pathological staging
- Remove metastases such as liver or lung metastases
- Relieve cancer symptoms, for instance, through opening a bowel blocked by a tumor
- Prevent someone from getting cancer, such as removing one or both breasts in a woman believed to be at high risk for breast cancer
- Restore function or appearance by reconstructing a body part after treatment, such as breast reconstruction with breast implants after mastectomy
When surgery is used to remove cancer, other treatments like chemo or radiotherapy may be used to kill any cancer cells that may have remained.
Chemotherapy, often shortened to chemo, is the use of any drugs to treat any disease. But most people think it means the use of cytotoxic drugs to kill cancer cells.
While surgery and radiation therapy kill or damage cancer cells in a specific area, cytotoxic drugs/cytostatics are transported in the bloodstream throughout the body.
As a result, chemo can kill cancer cells that have spread from the primary tumor into different parts of the body.
Chemotherapy in cancer treatment aims to:
- Cure cancer, meaning there are no traces of cancer left and it will never come back
- Control cancer by shrinking tumors and or slowing cancer growth
- Ease cancer symptoms by, for instance, shrinking tumors that are causing pain or pressure
How often you get chemo and how long the treatment lasts varies according to the type of cancer you have, the aim, the type of drugs used, and how your body responds to them.
Chemotherapy medications prolong a person’s life by destroying fast growing and dividing cancer cells. However, they damage healthy body cells bringing short and long term chemo side effects.
Effects of chemotherapy on one’s body vary from one patient to another we have covered common side effects of chemotherapy and how you can manage and minimize them.
Radiation therapy, also known as radiotherapy, uses high doses of ionizing radiation to destroy cancer cells and shrink tumors.
According to the American Cancer Society, more than half of people with cancer get radiotherapy. The treatment aims to:
- Cure cancer and shrink tumors
- Before surgery to shrink a cancerous tumor (neoadjuvant therapy)
- After surgery to stop the growth of any remaining cancer cells (adjuvant therapy)
- Alleviate symptoms caused by cancer, including pain, trouble breathing, and bowel blockage
- Reduce the risk of metastases, for instance, people with certain kinds of lung cancer may get preventive radiation to the head as their type of lung cancer often spreads to the brain
Radiation may be used together with chemotherapy since some drugs called radiosensitizers make cancer cells more sensitive to radiation.
However, using both treatments simultaneously increases the side effects. Radiotherapy can be given externally by a machine or internally by introducing a radioactive source into the body.
Targeted therapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs that target the differences in cancer cells that help them grow, divide, and spread.
It’s mostly given together with other cancer treatments such as chemo and radiotherapy. Targeted therapy drugs can treat cancer by working to:
- Help the immune system destroy cancer cells
- Block signals that tell cancer cells to divide, which stops cancer cells from growing
- Change proteins within the cancer cells to kill them
- Interfere with signals that help form blood vessels, which inhibits the growth of tumors
- Carry toxins to the cancer cells to kill them.
Targeted therapy drugs are not suitable for treating all types of cancer.
For instance, a targeted drug that blocks specific gene activity will only work if the gene is active in the cancer in question.
As the name suggests, immunotherapy is a treatment that uses your body’s immune system to fight diseases such as cancer.
The immune system is made up of different cells, organs, proteins, and tissues that help protect you from infections and other diseases. Immunotherapy works against cancer by:
- Boosting your immune system to work better against cancer
- Giving you substances or cells that help destroy cancer cells
Several types of immunotherapy are used to treat cancer, including:
- Monoclonal antibodies: these are immune system proteins made in the lab. They are also known as therapeutic antibodies and are designed to attack specific targets found on cancer cells.
- Checkpoint inhibitors: these drugs work by releasing “brakes” that keep T cells from killing cancer cells, interfering with the ability of cancer cells to avoid immune system attack.
- Treatment vaccines: they boost your immune system’s response to cancer cells.
- Cytokines: these are proteins made by your body’s cells which enhance the body’s immune response to cancer.
Immunotherapy has been approved to treat many types of cancer. It is, however, not as widely used as surgery, chemo, and radiotherapy.
Hormone therapy is a cancer treatment that slows or stops the growth of cancer whose cells exploit the body hormones to grow.
It is also known as hormonal therapy, hormone treatment, or endocrine therapy. Hormone therapy for aims to:
- Treat cancer. Hormone therapy can lessen the chance of cancer returning or, stop or slow its growth.
- Ease cancer symptoms. For men with prostate cancer that are not able to have surgery or radiotherapy, hormone therapy may be used to reduce or prevent symptoms.
Hormonal therapy is used to treat breast cancer, prostate cancer, thyroid cancer, and endometrial cancer. It is most often used together with other cancer treatments.
Stem cells transplants
Stem cell transplants are procedures that restore blood-forming stem cells in people who have had their bone marrow destroyed by disease, chemotherapy (chemo), or radiotherapy.
Blood-forming (hematopoietic) stem cells are important because they grow to become blood cells. The main types of blood cells are:
- White blood cells, which help fight infections
- Red blood cells, which transport oxygen throughout your body
- Platelets, which help the blood clot
The blood-forming stem cells used in transplants can come from the bone marrow, bloodstream, or umbilical cord. There are various types of transplants, including:
- Autologous: the stem cells come from the same person receiving the transplant.
- Allogenic: the stem cells come from someone else, who may be related or not related to the recipient.
- Synergic: the stem cells come from the recipient’s identical sibling (twin or triplet).
Stem cell transplants are mainly used to help you recover your ability to produce stem cells following high-dose treatments.
However, in some cancers, such as multiple myeloma and some types of leukemia and lymphoma, a stem cell transplant can directly fight cancer cells.
This happens because of the graft-versus-tumor effect, which occurs when donor cells attack any cancer cells they find in your body.
Stem cell transplants are complicated procedures, so ensure you find out as much as you can from the doctor or transplant team. Many people also get a second opinion before they decide to have a transplant.
Cryoablation for cancer is a minimally invasive treatment to kill cancer cells with extreme cold. It is also called cryotherapy or cryosurgery. Cryoablation is performed using a thin, wandlike needle called a cryoprobe.
Liquid nitrogen or argon is directly delivered into the cancerous tumor through the skin using a cryoprobe. The procedure causes the tumor to freeze. It is then allowed to thaw.
The freezing and thawing process is repeated several times in the same treatment session. Cryoablation, when used for cancer treatment:
- Treats bone, cervical, prostate, liver, kidney, eye, and lung cancers, especially if surgery isn’t an option
- Relieves pain and other symptoms caused by cancer
Side effects of cancer treatment
Cancer treatments can cause many side effects. A side effect is a problem that occurs when treatment damages healthy tissues or organs. Side effects of cancer treatment include:
- Hair loss (Alopecia)
- Neutropenia, a decrease in the white blood cells
- Lymphedema, swelling in an arm or leg caused by a build-up of lymph fluid under your skin
- Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
- Appetite loss
- Memory or concentration problems
- Fertility issues in boys and men, and girls and women
- Sex health issues in both men and women
- Sleeping problems
Cancer treatment cost
Despite there being hundreds of different types of cancer, there are several consistent factors that contribute to patients’ overall costs for their care. These factors include:
- Insurance status: patients without health insurance are usually responsible for all of their treatment costs.
- Type of insurance coverage: the kind of health insurance you have and the benefit structure largely determine the ultimate treatment cost.
- The type of treatment: surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, et cetera.
- How much treatment you need: number of surgeries, treatment length, number of doses, and more.
- Geographic location: Areas that generally have high costs of living tend to have higher treatment costs.
- Treatment setting: the cost may differ depending on whether you receive treatment in a hospital, clinic, or physician’s office.
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- National Cancer Institute (n.d). Types of Cancer Treatment. cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/types
- American Cancer Society (n.d). Treatment Types. cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/treatment-types.html
- All about Cancer (n.d). Cancer treatments. allaboutcancer.fi/treatment-and-rehabilitation/
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2019). Side Effects of Cancer Treatment. cdc.gov/cancer/survivors/patients/side-effects-of-treatment.htm
- Cancer action Network (n.d). Costs of Cancer treatment. fightcancer.org/sites/default/files/Costs%20of%20Cancer%20-%20Final%20Web.pdf