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The 3 main cancer treatments are surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Other types of treatments, such as hormonal therapy, biological therapy or stem cell transplant, may also be used in certain cases for some types of cancer. Cancer treatment is given by cancer specialists (oncologists). Some specialize in surgery, some in radiation therapy and others in chemotherapy (drugs). These doctors work with the person with cancer to decide on a treatment plan.
People with cancer are given individual treatment plans based on their:
- type of cancer
- cancer’s characteristics
- stage of cancer
- personal situation and wishes
Sometimes, 2 people with the same cancer may be given very different treatments.
Cancer treatment may be given for a number of reasons. Sometimes, the goal of treatment can change over time.
- prevention (prophylaxis) – Treatment is given to prevent the growth of cancer cells or to remove precancerous tissue that could turn into cancer.
- cure – Treatment is given to cure the cancer.
- control – Treatment is given to control the tumour and stop cancer from growing and spreading. It also reduces the risk of the cancer coming back (recurring).
- palliation (palliative) – When cure is not possible, treatment is given to:
- temporarily shrink tumours
- reduce symptoms, such as bleeding, pain or pressure
- treat problems caused by cancer or its treatment
- improve a person's comfort and quality of life
A cancer treatment plan is based on each person's unique situation.
Sometimes, only one type of treatment is all that is needed. This is called the main or primary treatment. In other cases, one type of treatment by itself may not work as well and a combination of treatments is used to more effectively control and treat the cancer.
When a combination of treatments is used, they may be given together or at different times, depending on the type or stage of cancer.
- neoadjuvant – Treatment, such as chemotherapy or radiation, is given before the primary treatment to shrink a tumour so that it is easier to treat with the primary therapy.
- adjuvant – Treatment is given after the primary therapy to control the cancer more effectively, to destroy any remaining cancer cells or to reduce the risk of the cancer recurring.
Types of treatment
Treatment can be broadly divided into the following types of therapies:
- local therapy – Local treatments are directed at a specific part of the body and are often used when cancer is limited to that area. Radiation therapy and surgery are both local treatments.
- systemic therapy – Systemic treatments travel through the bloodstream to reach cancer cells throughout the body. Many chemotherapy drugs are systemic treatments that are absorbed by the body’s cells and tissues. Systemic treatmentsare often used to treat metastatic cancer (the cancer is found in several parts of the body) or to reduce the chance of cancer coming back (as adjuvant treatment).
- targeted therapy – Targeted treatments directly target the cancer cells while sparing normal cells. Targeted therapy uses a biological agent to zero in on the cancer cell.
Sources of drug information
For information on specific drugs, go to sources of drug information.
Side effects of treatment
Side effects can occur with any type of treatment, but not everyone has them or experiences them in the same way. Side effects can occur during or after treatment. They may go away quickly or last for a long time.
Advances in cancer treatment and new ways of managing side effects have helped the outlook and quality of life for many people with cancer.
Support from someone who has ‘been there’
The Canadian Cancer Society’s peer support program is a telephone support service that matches cancer patients and their caregivers with specially trained volunteers.