When you or a loved one is diagnosed with cancer, you first want to understand the available treatment options. The main modalities used in treatment are surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, immunotherapy and targeted therapy. We will outline these treatments and what they offer in order for you to receive the best treatment.
Surgery aims to remove the tumour and any surrounding cancerous tissue. It can be used alone or in combination with other treatments. The goal of surgery is to remove all detectable cancer cells. Depending on the type and stage of cancer, surgery may be able to cure the disease.
Chemotherapy uses anti-cancer drugs to stop the cells from reproducing, which prevents spreading in the body. It can be administered intravenously or orally in the form of pills. Chemotherapy is usually used as an adjuvant treatment before or after surgery to help reduce the risk of recurrence. It may also be used as a primary treatment to shrink tumours.
Radiation therapy uses high-energy radiation beams to kill cancer cells and shrink tumours. It works by damaging cancer cell DNA preventing them from dividing. Radiation can be delivered externally by a machine outside the body or internally through radioactive seeds or wires placed inside or near the tumour.
Immunotherapy uses the body’s immune system to help it identify and attack cancer cells more effectively. These include monoclonal antibodies, checkpoint inhibitors and vaccines. Some types of immunotherapies are also called targeted treatments. While this isn’t available for all types of cancer, active research and development seeks to expand this.
Targeted therapy uses drugs that specifically target proteins that control how cancer cells grow, divide and spread. This procedure causes minimal damage to healthy cells through small-molecule drugs which are small enough to enter cells easily, so they are used for targets that are inside cells.
Understanding the basic differences between these treatments empowers you to have more informed conversations with your loved ones or an oncologist. They will help determine the best protocol or combination of therapies based on the unique characteristics of cancer and the patient in order to minimise negative side-effects.