Cancer

Updated 06 May 2016

Treating cancer

The kind of treatment needed will depend on the type and stage of cancer. Common treatments include chemotherapy, immunotherapy, surgery and radiation.

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Before effective treatment for cancer can be given, it is essential that an oncologist should have determined the type of cancer and what stage it is in.

There are also other things to be considered, such as where the cancer is, what the general health of the patient is like, and whether the cancer has spread, or not. A patient aged 20 can possibly recover from extensive surgery quite easily, whereas the risks would be far higher for someone aged 80. Often a team of specialists will make decisions on the best treatment plan for you, says the Cancer Association of South Africa.

As cancer drugs have improved, so have the success rates of cancer treatment. And side effects of these treatments are also less severe than they were a few decades ago. These treatments have led to a vast increase in cancer survival rates over the last few decades.

Here’s more about the different treatment options from the American Cancer Society and the US National Cancer Institute.

Surgery

- Surgeons will operate to remove tumours in cancer patients. This is especially effective if the tumour is localised and has not spread to other parts of the body. Sometimes surgeons can remove the entire tumour, but sometimes, as in the case of the removal of brain tumours, it would be life-threatening to do so. Surgery can either be open surgery, or minimally invasive (using a laparoscope).

- Laser surgery can also be used to destroy or shrink tumours. Cryosurgery, in which liquid nitrogen is used to destroy abnormal tissue, is often used to treat skin cancer and precancerous growths on the skin.

- Hyperthermia, a treatment in which high-energy radio waves are used to damage and kill cancer cells, is not yet widely available.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy (external beam therapy and internal beam therapy) uses high-energy particles or waves to destroy or damage cancer cells. It is a very common treatment for cancer, often used in conjunction with other treatments. Radiation therapy can stop cancer cells from growing. Healthy tissue in the surrounding areas is sometimes damaged, but healthy tissues can repair themselves, whereas cancer cells cannot.

External beam therapy uses radiation to destroy cancer cells in a specific part of your body.

Internal beam therapy puts the source of radiation inside your body in the form of seeds or capsules near the cancer. You can also receive liquid radiation through an intravenous line.

Chemotherapy

This refers to the use of strong drugs to treat cancer and to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy can be used to stop cancer cells from spreading, to slow the growth of a tumour, and to kill cancer cells that have already spread to other parts of the body. This can be used to shrink tumours before surgery. Chemotherapy is often used together with surgery and radiation.

There is usually a break between treatment cycles to give your body a chance to recover, as chemotherapy drugs also attack healthy cells. The frequency of treatment depends on the type of cancer you have, and how advanced it is.

Some people are unaffected by the side effects of chemotherapy and can continue their normal lives,  whereas others are laid low by fatigue and/or nausea. Chemotherapy can cause mouth sores and make you hair fall out, but it will grow again.

Immunotherapy

Immunotherapy is a type of biological therapy – that means substances made from living organisms are used to treat cancer. This type of therapy makes it difficult for cancer cells to ‘hide’ from your immune system so they are more easily found and destroyed.

Read more about less common types of cancer treatment, courtesy of the National Cancer Institute.

Read more:

Preventing cancer

Types of cancer

Diagnosing cancer

 

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Cancer expert

CANSA’s purpose is to lead the fight against cancer in South Africa. Its mission is to be the preferred non-profit organisation that enables research, educates the public and provides support to all people affected by cancer. Questions are answered by CANSA’s Head of Health Professor Michael Herbst and Head of Advocacy Magdalene Seguin. For more information, visit cansa.org.za.

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