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Posted October 24, 2022 by Teresa Goebel, D.O.
Nearly 40 percent of individuals in this country will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives, according to the National Cancer Institute. Breast, lung, prostate, colon and skin cancers are among the most common cancers diagnoses.
Fortunately, there are many cancer treatment options available today to cure a cancer, slow the progression or even reduce side effects from cancer — with several more being studied. Cancer treatments include local treatments, such as surgery or radiation, which are used to treat a specific tumor or area of the body. Other treatments using drugs, such as chemotherapy or immunotherapy, are often referred to as systemic treatments because they can affect the entire body.
If you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, your doctor will recommend one or more ways to treat the disease, depending on the type and stage of the cancer you have. Together you and your doctor can weigh the risks and benefits of each cancer treatment to determine which is right for you.
Chemotherapy (sometimes referred to as chemo) is one of the most common cancer treatments used to treat many types of cancer. Chemotherapy uses a drug or combination of drugs to kill cancer cells. Depending on the type of cancer you have, where it’s located and whether it has spread, your medical oncologist will determine the dose, how the drugs will be administered, and how often and how long you’ll receive chemo treatment.
Chemo is a systemic treatment because the drugs, given either by mouth or intravenously, travel throughout the body to treat your cancer, stop the spread of cancer or shrink tumors. It may also be prescribed to help you feel better, improve your quality of life and live longer in cases where curing the cancer is not part of the prognosis.
Often times, chemotherapy is used with additional treatments, such as surgery or radiation therapy.
Targeted therapy is a type of chemotherapy that uses drugs designed to precisely identify and attack certain cancer cells without damaging healthy cells. The drugs work by zeroing in on some of the proteins that make cancer cells different from normal cells. The drugs, which can be given orally or intravenously, may block messages that make cancer cells grow and stop them from spreading, or sometimes kills cancer cells directly.
Only a few type of cancers are treated using targeted therapy and most patients also need other types of cancer treatments.
Most people with cancer receive radiation therapy. This cancer treatment uses high doses of radiation to shrink tumors or completely destroy a tumor, treat uncomfortable symptoms or treat recurring cancer.
Unlike chemotherapy that exposes the entire body, radiation is a localized treatment. It’s usually aimed at one area of the body to damage cancer cells with as little harm as possible to nearby healthy cells.
Radiation is typically used with other cancer treatments. It can be used before surgery to shrink a tumor or after surgery to help keep the cancer from coming back.
Surgery is another common treatment for many types of cancer. Surgery is typically used when cancer is found in one part of the body and it’s likely the surgeon can remove all of the cancer during the procedure.
In some cases, a surgeon may not be able to remove the tumor, or may be able to only take a portion of it because it’s located too close to a vital organ. In this case, your doctors may use other treatments, such as chemotherapy or radiation, to treat the cancer.
Surgery also can be used to diagnose cancer with a biopsy(ies) and determine if it has spread and if so, how far it has spread. In some cases, surgery might be used to relieve side effects.
In the last few decades, immunotherapy, which relies on a patient’s own immune system to fight cancer, has become an important way to treat many types of cancer. Immunotherapy uses drugs to help boost a person’s immune system so it works harder to find and attack cancer cells to stop or slow cancer growth.
Because cancer cells begin in normal cells, the immune system doesn’t always recognize them as foreign. Immunotherapy uses drugs that help the immune system recognize and attack cancer cells. It also can involve using a patient’s own cells from their blood and mixing them with a substance in a lab to teach the body’s cells how to attack cancer cells. These cells are then injected back into the patient to treat the cancer.
Typically, immunotherapy works best when used with other cancer treatments.
In most cases, stem cell transplants, also known as bone marrow transplants, don’t fight the cancer cells directly. Instead, the treatment helps the body recover and form its own stem cells after being destroyed by cancer or treatment.
Stem cells are immature blood cells that make red blood cells (to carry oxygen), white blood cells (to fight infection), as well as platelets (to repair damaged blood vessels). To do their jobs, a person needs enough of each in their bloodstream. Stem cells can come from bone marrow, bloodstream or umbilical cord blood from newborns.
In a stem cell transplant, a patient receives healthy stem cells through a needle. Once in the bloodstream, the transplanted stem cells travel to bone marrow to replace damaged cells with healthy stem cells that will mature into blood cells that function normally and reproduce cells free from cancer.
Most cancers that affect bone marrow functions include leukemia, multiple myeloma and lymphomas because all of these cancers start in blood cells.
Hormone therapy is mostly used to treat breast, prostate and ovarian cancers that depend on sex hormones to grow. Hormone therapy can block certain hormones to slow or stop the growth of these cancers.
Hormone therapy uses drugs, given orally or by injection, to stop the body from producing the hormone, block the hormone from attaching to cancer cells or alter the hormone so it doesn’t work as it should. Hormone therapy may also include surgery to remove organs that produce the hormone, such as the ovaries or testes.
Recent advances in cancer treatment are improving patient outcomes, in addition to expanded screening options to help catch cancer at earliest stages. Learn more about the comprehensive cancer care options at Summa Health. Talk to your doctor to determine which treatment is right for your situation.