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|How Is Cancer Treated?
Cancer is a frightening disease and there is no doubt that the medical treatments for it are unpleasant. However, cancer treatments very often prolong lives considerably, even to the point of curing the disease completely in many people. Cancer therapy generally has one of three aims. These are:
Once a diagnosis of cancer has been given, treatment options are discussed. Treatments are generally split into two types: (1) Local therapies which work at eradicating disease (mostly tumors) in one area. Surgery and radiation are the most common types of local therapies. (2) Systemic therapies work throughout the body seeking to destroy cancer cells which have strayed for their point of origin. The most common systemic therapy is chemotherapy, but also hormonal therapy and biological therapy. Systemic therapies can also work on tumors but just not as effectively as local therapies. Occasionally a combination of both local and systemic therapies is applied. For example, when a tumor has been removed by surgery, some chemotherapy may be applied to ensure that any cancer cells which may have strayed have also been destroyed.
Surgery is one of the oldest types of treatment for cancer. It also plays an important role in the diagnosis process, allowing a surgeon to check how far the cancer has spread (staging). Cancer surgery is usually elective rather than emergency. This means that the patient is given time to assess their options. Today many procedures involve less cutting (i.e. less invasive) which means tumors can be removed while saving more of the surrounding tissue and function. Surgery offers the best chance of cure for many cancers, especially for those cancers that have not spread to other parts of the body. In fact most people with cancer will undergo surgery at some time. Other reasons it may be performed include ‘debulking’ (cytoreductive) where some of the tumor but not all is removed because removing too much might cause damage to surrounding tissues. The remainder of the tumor is then treated with chemotherapy or radiation. Palliative surgery is used to treat advanced cases of cancer. It is not performed to cure cancer but rather to ease pain. For example some cancers of the stomach grow large enough to block off the intestines. Restorative or reconstructive surgery may be carried out, after a breast cancer mastectomy for example to restore the appearance of the breast. See breast cancer treatments. Recovering after postoperative procedures is also an important process, to find out what to expect read about cancer surgery recovery.
Radiation is used to shrink or destroy a tumor or to sterilize an area where a tumor was removed but which may still contain some stray cancer cells. Sometimes all that is needed is radiation, other times it is part of a comprehensive treatment. Radiation is not like chemo, which treats the whole body, radiation just treats one part of the body specifically. Radiation is normally given in two ways: External Radiation, which is delivered by a machine and Internal Radiation which is emitted by a source placed inside the body. Radiation works by destroying the DNA of the cells so that it dies or is so damaged that it cannot continue to divide and 'reproduce'. Although radiation oncologists need to work to protect normal cells in the body, there is some natural protection. A cell’s DNA is most exposed when it is dividing, and as cancer cells divide and grow a lot faster than healthy cells, they are more vulnerable to radiation therapy.
A radioactive source is placed inside an implant, which is inserted in the body and emits energy. If an implant is inserted for a few days, this treatment is called brachytherapy. The implant is inserted in an operating theatre. It may be left for a few hours or a few days. For example, if a woman has a gynecologic cancer an implant may be inserted in her uterus. As the body cavity is not a perfectly sealed area, the woman is considered radioactive. She must stay in hospital and her room will be marked 'Danger: radioactive'. Relatives will be given very strict guidelines on contact. Occasionally implants are injected into the body and travel through the body eventually run out of energy and decay. The advantage is, normal activities can be resumed straight away, so no need to be sealed in a private room.
Chemotherapy (chemo) uses drugs and medications to treat cancer. In the last few years courses have become shorter and more effective drugs/medications, techniques and products help to relieve side effects. Most doctors will recommend combining alternative treatments for cancer with any medical procedures, to help the body heal faster. Chemo is a different experience for every woman and there is no way to predict how she will respond. Some women are hit pretty hard, yet others sail through with minimum effect. Chemo is usually recommended where (1) cancer cells have spread from the point of origin, (2) where there is a reasonable suspicion of cancer spread and (3) to decrease the size of a tumor so that it can be treated with local therapy. See Chemotherapy Guide for more details.
Some cancers rely on a certain balance of female hormones to exist in the body so the cancer can grow and thrive. Hormone therapy works by changing this balance and starving the cancer cells. This sort of treatment is most commonly applied to breast cancer (see hormone therapy for breast cancer).
Biological Therapy (Immunotherapy)
This is a relatively new type of treatment. Biological therapy is about teaching the body's immune system how to attack something that should not be there. It also works by giving the immune system man-made components to fight disease more effectively. Researchers for example are experimenting with monoclonal antibodies, which are like 'smart-bombs'. They are artificial antibodies which are loaded with radiation. They travel to the affected area and deliver their dose. Although this field of cancer treatment has far to go, many researchers believe that biological therapy will play a major role in the future of cancer therapy.
Another new type of cancer treatment, targeted therapy works by identifying and attacking cancer cells with drugs and other substances, while at the same time not damaging normal cells. Targeted therapy attacks the inner mechanics of cancer cells so that they cannot divide, repair or interact with other cells. Examples include the drug Gleevec which targets GIST, a rare cancer of the gastrointestinal tract or Iressa which targets a specific kind of lung cancer.
|Related Articles on Cancer
For more on treatments, prevention and causes, see the following:
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