Treatment for cancer depends of the type of cancer; the size, location, and stage of the disease; the person’s general health; and other factors. Our doctors develop a treatment plan to fit each person’s situation.
People with cancer are often treated by a team of specialists, which may include a surgeon, radiation oncologist, medical oncologist and others. Most cancers are treated with surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, or biological therapy. The doctors may decide to use one treatment method or a combination of methods.
For information about specific treatments for different cancer, visit Cancer Types.
Surgery is therapy to remove the cancer; the surgeon may also remove some of the surrounding tissue and lymph nodes near the tumor. Sometimes surgery is done on an outpatient basis, or the patient may have to stay in the hospital. This decision depends mainly on the type of surgery and the type of anesthesia.
Radiation therapy can also be called radiotherapy. It uses high-energy rays to kill cancer cells. For some types of cancer, radiation therapy may be used instead of surgery as the primary treatment. Radiation therapy also may be given before surgery (neoadjuvant therapy) to shrink a tumor so that it is easier to remove. In other cases, radiation therapy is given after surgery (adjuvant therapy) to destroy any cancer cells that may remain in the area. Radiation also may be used alone, or along with other types of treatment, to relieve pain or other problems if the tumor cannot be removed.
Radiation therapy can be in either of two forms: external or internal. Some patients receive both.
External radiation comes from a machine that aims the rays at a specific area of the body. Most often, this treatment is given on an outpatient basis in a hospital or clinic. There is no radioactivity left in the body after treatment.
With internal radiation (also called implant radiation, interstitial radiation, or brachytherapy), the radiation comes from radioactive material that is sealed in needles, seeds, wires or catheters and placed directly in or near the tumor.
Chemotherapy is usually given in cycles: a treatment period (one or more days when treatment is given) followed by a recovery period (several days or weeks), then another treatment period, and so on. Anti-cancer drugs are given by injection into a vein by IV, injected into a muscle or under the skin, or given by mouth.
Sometimes the anti-cancer drugs are given in other ways. For example, in an approach called intraperitoneal chemotherapy, anti-cancer drugs are placed directly into the abdomen through a catheter. To reach cancer cells in the central nervous system (CNS), the patient may receive intrathecal chemotherapy. In this type of treatment, the anti-cancer drugs enter the cerebrospinal fluid through a needle placed in the spinal column or a device under the scalp.
Usually a patient has chemotherapy as an outpatient (at the hospital, at the doctor’s office, or at home). However, depending on which drugs are given, the dose, how they are given and the patient’s general health, a short hospital stay may be needed.
Hormone therapy is used against certain cancers that depend on hormones for their growth. Hormone therapy keeps cancer cells from getting or using the hormones they need. This treatment may include the use of drugs that stop the production of certain hormones or that change the way they work. Another type of hormone therapy is surgery to remove organs (such as the ovaries or testicles) that make hormones.
Biological therapy (also called immunotherapy) helps the body’s natural ability (immune system) to fight disease or protects the body from some of the side effects of cancer treatment. Monoclonal antibodies, interferon, interleukin-2, and colony-stimulating factors are some types of biological therapy.
Bone marrow transplantation (BMT) or peripheral stem cell transplantation (PSCT) may also be used in cancer treatment. The transplant may be autologous (the person’s own cells that were saved earlier), allogeneic (cells donated by another person), or syngeneic (cells donated by an identical twin). Both BMT and PSCT provide the patient with healthy stem cells. These replace stem cells that have been damaged or destroyed by very high doses of chemotherapy and/or radiation treatment.