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There are a number of ways various cancers can be treated. Your healthcare professional will recommend different options depending on the type, stage and grade of your cancer.

Cancer treatments generally focus on destroying or controlling cancerous cells, but in the same way that everyone’s cancer is different, each person’s cancer treatment will be different too.  

Surgery

Surgery involves removing all or part of the cancer with an operation and is one of the main treatments for many types of cancer.

Surgery may be performed before or sometimes after other treatments have been given to shrink a cancer and make it easier to remove. Sometimes it’s not possible to have surgery due to a variety of things such as the type of cancer, where the cancer is or the general health of the person. In this case other treatments may be offered.

Chemotherapy

This is the use of anti-cancer drugs to destroy cancer cells. Chemotherapy drugs work by stopping cancer cells reproducing. The drugs can also affect healthy cells, causing side effects.

Chemotherapy involves several treatment sessions, typically spread over a few months. Before treatment starts, your medical team will make a plan that outlines:

  • the type of chemotherapy you'll have
  • how many treatment sessions you'll need
  • how often you'll need treatment – after each treatment you'll have a break before the next session, to allow your body to recover

Your treatment plan will depend on things such as the type of cancer you have and what the aim of treatment is. Chemotherapy can be given as an:

  • injection or infusion into a vein (intravenous chemotherapy)
  • as tablets
  • or a combination of both

This will depend on which drugs are being given:

Into a vein (intravenous chemotherapy)

In most cases, chemotherapy is given directly into a vein. This is known as intravenous chemotherapy.

The time it takes to get a dose of intravenous chemotherapy can range from several hours to several days.

You usually go into hospital for the treatment and go home when it's finished.

Tablets (oral chemotherapy)

Sometimes chemotherapy is given as tablets. This is known as oral chemotherapy.

You'll need to go into hospital at the start of each treatment session to get the tablets and have a check-up, but you can take the medicine at home. You must:

Make sure you follow the instructions given by your care team. Contact your care team if you have any problems with your medicine, such as forgetting to take a tablet or being sick shortly after taking one.

There are other less common types of chemotherapy such as:

  • injections under the skin, known as subcutaneous chemotherapy
  • injections into a muscle, known as intramuscular chemotherapy
  • injections into the spine, known as intrathecal chemotherapy
  • a skin cream

Side effects during chemotherapy

Everyone is different but the following is a list of some of the more common side affects you may experience:

  • tiredness
  • feeling and being sick
  • hair loss
  • infections
  • anaemia
  • sore mouth
  • loss of appetite
  • memory and concentration problems

Targeted therapies and immunotherapy

These cancer drugs work by ‘targeting’ those differences that help a cancer cell to survive and grow. There are many different types of targeted therapy, each type targets something in or around the cancer cell that is helping it grow and survive.

Immunotherapy drugs help the immune system work harder or make it easier for it to find and get rid of cancer cells.

There are different types of immunotherapy. Each one uses the immune system in a different way and works better for some types of cancer than others. It is used alone for some cancers, but for others it seems to work better when used with other cancer treatments.

Types of radiotherapy 

External radiotherapy

Radiotherapy is a treatment for cancer that uses carefully measured and controlled high energy x-rays. Radiotherapy treatment is planned carefully for each person, this allows for more effective treatment while doing as little harm as possible to nearby healthy cells. Radiation also affects healthy cells and this can cause side effects in the area of the treatment including sore red skin, feeling tired, hair loss in the area being treated, feeling sick, losing your appetite, a sore mouth and diarrhoea.

Radiotherapy can be used to try to cure cancer, reduce the chance of cancer coming back or to help relieve symptoms. It might be given by itself or with other treatments such as chemotherapy or surgery. Radiotherapy does not make you radioactive.

Proton beam therapy

Proton beam therapy is a type of radiotherapy that uses high-energy proton beams instead x-ray beams or electrons. Proton beam therapy means the treatment can be more targeted to the specific area of the body it’s needed. This is much more accurate and means there is less risk of radiation affecting healthy body tissue.

Internal radiotherapy

There are different types of internal radiotherapy such as radioisotopes or brachytherapy. The type of treatment you have depends on where in the body the cancer is and your cancer type.

Brachytherapy uses radioactive implants such as seeds, pellets, wires or plates that are put close to or in the tumour or in the area from which the cancer was removed. This allows a high dose of radiation to be given to the tumour, but nearby healthy areas get much less.

Radioactive liquids known as radioisotopes or radionuclides are used to destroy cancer cells. The liquid can be given as a drink or capsules or by injection into a vein. These treatments can make you radioactive for a few days after treatment. Your team will tell you about the radiation safety procedures you need to follow.

Radiotherapy is usually given in hospital. When you have external radiotherapy, you can usually go home soon after, but you may need to stay in hospital for a few days if you have implants or radioisotope therapy.

There are usually several treatment sessions, typically spread over the course of a few weeks.

Watchful waiting

Watchful waiting is keeping a close eye on a cancer, especially those which can be slow growing. It’s only if tests show the cancer is growing or spreading, or symptoms appear that other treatments begin. This can often be used in cancers like prostate cancer, where the risks and impact of treatment are greater than the possible benefits.

Palliative treatment

Palliative treatment is designed to relieve symptoms and improve your quality of life. It can be used at any stage of an illness if there are troubling symptoms, such as pain or sickness. It can also be used to reduce or control the side effects of cancer treatments. In advanced cancer, palliative treatment might help someone to live longer and to live comfortably even if they cannot be cured. 

If you or someone you love has been affected by cancer, our free cancer Support Line is there for you. Just call 0808 808 1010