Cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells within the body, which can form masses or tumours and spread to other areas. There are a number of ways to medically intervene when it comes to this disease. The main or most widely used treatments for cancer are surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. Most cancer treatments aim to damage and destroy the rapidly dividing cancer cells.
How Is Surgery Used In The Treatment Of Cancer?
When used as a cancer treatment, the aim of surgery is generally to remove the cancer from your body. Surgery is a local treatment, which means that it focuses on just one part of the body instead of the whole system. Depending on your cancer, surgery can remove the cancer completely (curative or primary surgery) or partially (debulking). Nearby lymph nodes may also be removed if the cancer has spread to them.
The type of surgery depends on the purpose and area of the body and can be open (a large cut to remove cancer) or minimally invasive (a few small cuts followed by the use of a laparoscope and specialised tools). There are also specialised types of surgery used in cancer treatment. These include:
- Cryosurgery - uses extreme cold to freeze and destroy cancer cells. This can be delivered internally or externally
- Laser Surgery - uses beams of light to remove or shrink cancer cells with precision. This method can be used in difficult-to-reach areas of the body
- Electrosurgery - uses electrical current to damage cancer cells
- Mohs surgery - is a microscopically controlled method of removing layers of skin until cancer cells are no longer detected. This is good for delicate parts of the body, for example, the eye
Surgery is often used in combination with other treatments. You may also need multiple surgeries depending on the aim. Other types of surgery for cancer are preventative, removing tissue that could develop into cancer, or restorative (reconstructive).
How Is Chemotherapy Used In The Treatment Of Cancer?
Chemotherapy (sometimes referred to as simply ‘chemo’) is a strong drug treatment used to cure, lessen the growth, or reduce the chance of return for cancer. It can also be used to shrink tumours in order to ease symptoms. It is a cytotoxic treatment, which means that it damages or destroys living cells. Chemotherapy can also be described as a systemic treatment, indicating that it travels through the whole bodily system via the bloodstream.
This medication works by damaging cancer cells so that they can no longer divide and multiply, achieving this by either damaging the cell’s control centre which causes the cells to divide, or by targeting the chemical process involved in the division. There are many different chemotherapy drugs to choose from, with new ones being developed all the time. Your medical team may choose to use one drug for treatment, or a combination of medications.
Chemotherapy can be administered orally, intravenously, via injection, or topically. Treatment is generally done in cycles, with a period of administering the drug followed by a break in treatment. Rest periods are important for the building of new healthy cells and to allow the body to recover from the effects of the drug.
How Is Radiation Used In The Treatment Of Cancer?
Radiotherapy (or radiation therapy) is a treatment that uses radiation to kill cancer cells. It is considered a highly effective cancer treatment, although the degree of success will differ from person to person. The aim of the treatment can be curative, to support other treatments by making them more effective, reduce the likelihood of cancer returning post-surgery, or simply to ease cancer symptoms.
Radiotherapy generally uses photons to deliver high doses of radiation to an area of the body, with the aim of damaging the DNA of cancer cells and shrinking tumours. When these cells are damaged, they are unable to divide and die. The aim of radiotherapy is to deliver doses that are damaging enough to the cancer cells while causing minimal damage to the healthy cells. This will look different for each person and cancer type.
Radiotherapy can be delivered internally or externally. External methods involve a machine which aims radiation at a target area of the body and is generally quick and painless. Internal radiotherapy involves either an implant which is placed near the cancer target which emits radiation, or it can be given in liquid form via an IV drip, injection, or pill.
For implants, the length of time in which they stay in the body varies. Internal radiotherapy can make you radioactive, which means that a hospital stay or other safety measures may need to be taken to protect people around you.
What Are The Side Effects Of These Common Treatments?
Side effects vary according to the specific treatment type, the cancer being treated, and the individual person’s health. While there are some general side effects to be aware of, your body could respond differently from the next person.
Surgery is generally invasive and carries with it risks such as bleeding, nearby tissue damage, and reactions to anaesthesia. There is a possibility of something going wrong during the procedure, and afterwards, your body may struggle to heal, depending on your general health and the extent of the surgery.
Pain is common after an operation, so speak to your doctor about pain management. Infection is also a concern after surgery, and any wounds will need to be cared for. Some surgeries can even change the way your body works, for example, if an organ was removed. You may also be tired for some time and will need to allow your body to heal and recover.
The aim of chemotherapy is to kill the cancer cells, however, it can also kill or slow the growth of healthy cells, resulting in side effects. Damage to healthy cells may result in various difficulties such as a sore mouth, hair loss, skin discomfort, hearing difficulties, numbness or tingling, diarrhoea or constipation, fatigue, and nausea. You may also have an increased risk of getting infections, or experience ‘brain fog’.
Side effects are not an indication of how well the chemotherapy is working, and are often treatable or preventable, or simply pass once treatment stops. Some chemotherapy drugs can damage fertility, whether temporary or permanent. Patients undergoing chemotherapy should also avoid getting pregnant during treatment, as the drugs may cause birth defects.
Similar to chemotherapy, radiotherapy side effects are generally caused by damage that the radiation causes to nearby healthy tissue. These may include sore skin, fatigue, nausea, loss of appetite, diarrhoea, mouth sores, inflammation of the oesophagus, and hair loss in the targeted area.
Side effects can often be treated or prevented, and many go away on their own after treatment ends. The breakdown of cancer cells generally happens weeks or even months after treatment, and patients generally feel well at the start of radiotherapy, but deteriorate as treatment progresses. It can take weeks or months after finishing your course before you feel better, so it may be advised that you take time off for this period.
As a body part can only safely receive a certain amount of radiation in a lifetime, you may not be able to have radiotherapy in the same area again. As with chemotherapy, women should avoid falling pregnant during or soon after radiotherapy treatment, as the radiation could harm the baby.
What Is The Best Cancer Treatment?
The best cancer treatment for you will need to be decided by you and your medical team. Your doctor will assess the type of cancer, how advanced it is, and your general health before evaluating which treatment options might be the most effective. Surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation might be part of your treatment plan, or they may choose to use other effective treatments such as immunotherapy or hormone therapy.
There are many treatment options available for cancer, and new areas of development and research are happening all the time. Speak to someone about what the best options might be for you.