After you have received your diagnosis, you will be offered a plan to treat your cancer. There are many factors that go into recommendations, which also means there may be changes along the way, and deviations from the initial plan. Treatments are tailored to your specific tumor type, grade, pathology, and how advanced it is, and take into consideration the overall health status of the person getting treatment.
Chemotherapy is a treatment that uses drugs to kill cancer cells. It is given orally, medicine taken by mouth, or intravenously (IV), through a needle placed in your vein, and in other ways. Most who receive chemotherapy also receive some other type of treatment. When used as a first treatment, this is called neoadjuvant, before any surgery or radiation, making a tumor smaller, and surgery easier. It can also be used after surgery or radiation, called adjuvant chemotherapy, to destroy cancer cells left behind.
Chemotherapy has many potential side effects, the most common one being fatigue. Other common side effects it may cause are hair loss, mouth sores, nausea, and tingling in hands/feet, which often improve or completely go away once you finish chemotherapy. Treatment schedules vary. The frequency and duration of chemotherapy depend on your type of cancer, how advanced it is if they are using it to cure your cancer, control its growth or ease your symptoms.
To treat cancer using surgery, a surgeon uses tools to remove cancer from your body. The different types of surgery, it may be open, or minimally invasive. The surgeon will remove the tumor, along with some healthy tissues and possibly nearby lymph nodes. Surgery can remove an entire tumor, or debulk it (removing some but not all of the cancer). Pain is common after surgery, your doctor can help you manage. How much depends on the extent of surgery, how you feel pain, and where on your body you had surgery. There is risk of infections, bleeding, damage to tissue nearby, or you could even have a reaction to the anesthesia. It is important to discuss all concerns with your doctor before surgery. There may be other tests to prepare you for surgery such as blood work, x-rays, and electrocardiograms (ECG), which look at your heart function. After surgery it is important to follow instructions from your surgeon, have good nutrition for healing, and get plenty of rest.
Radiation or Radiotherapy
This treatment uses high doses of radiation to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. X-rays, use a low dose of radiation to see inside your body. High doses kill or slow cancer cells by damaging their DNA. Radiation takes days or weeks before there is enough damage for cancer cells to die. The two main types of radiation are external beam and internal. The type you receive depends on what type of cancer, where it is located, size, plus factors related to your age, medical history, and general health. External beam radiation uses a machine that aims radiation at your cancer. You will see the machine moving during treatment, but will not feel radiation working. Internal radiation uses a radiation source, which is solid or liquid, placed inside of your body. It is known as brachytherapy when a solid source is used. This may be a seed, or capsule placed in or near the tumor. Radiation has lifetime dose limits so depending on whether you have had radiation before or not, you may not be able to have radiation again. Side effects depend on the area of the body to which the radiation is being given and typically affect only that area. It is possible that radiation is the only treatment, but often it is used with other cancer treatments such as chemotherapy, immunotherapy or surgery.
There are other ways to treat cancer which include but are not limited to, hormone therapy, immunotherapy, stem cell transplant, and targeted therapy. It is important to remember that doctors choose therapy based on an individual’s specific cancer, location, and overall health status. Ask questions, and make sure you understand the intent of the treatment being recommended, and how it may affect you.