Are you or a loved one suffering with cancer? If you’ve recently been diagnosed, what you need to do first is to start a good habit of recording, tracking, and requesting copies of all the necessary information, as well as your results. Immersing yourself into cancer vocabulary and in various medical appointments and procedures can be quite overwhelming, but you need to stay confident and in control.
If you have cancer, you will be provided with a treatment plan that’s tailored just for you. A team of healthcare providers will be on your side and tell you about your treatment options, and will guide you in making the right decisions. Still, the decisions are yours to make.
Working together with your healthcare providers in order to come up with an overall treatment plan that combines different types of treatments is called a multidisciplinary team.
For some patients, however, trying to decide the right treatment direction to take can be just as overwhelming. Healthcare providers will consider many things before they recommend a treatment plan, including:
- the type of cancer;
- the stage of cancer or how far the disease has progressed;
- the scientific evidence that the treatment works for your type of cancer;
- the possible side effects of the treatment;
- the patient’s personal choices or preferences;
- the patient’s age and overall health; and
- other medical problems the patient may have
Different Types of Treatment for Cancer
If you are in Canada, there are many options for you to consider in your treatment plan. As mentioned earlier, your healthcare providers will be there to help you make the right decisions.
Oftentimes, there is more than one treatment used for cancer patients. This is because treatments damage healthy cells besides cancer cells. Side effects are also common.
The most common options include, but are not limited to chemotherapy, radiotherapy, surgery, immunotherapy, hormone therapy, and targeted therapy.
With a proper treatment plan, many cancers can be cured. However, if you have advanced/late-stage cancer and a cure is unlikely, palliative care can help relieve symptoms and will make the patient feel comfortable.
Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill, slow, or even stop the growth of cancer cells. These drugs are also called cytotoxics, meaning “poisonous to cells”. Many cytotoxics are derived from natural sources like plants, while others are developed in a laboratory.
There are many different types of cytotoxics, some of which are used in different combinations and at different strengths. Most chemotherapy drugs are administered through the bloodstream, traveling throughout the body to reach cancer cells in different tissues and organs. Some drugs, however, are delivered directly into a tumour instead of the bloodstream. Some examples are chemotherapy wafers for brain cancer and chemoembolization for liver cancer.
As mentioned earlier, chemotherapy drugs are poisonous to cells, targeting and injuring rapidly dividing cells. Because of this, they’re not cancer-specific, and so they affect both cancer cells and some normal cells. When normal cells in the body are damaged, it causes side effects. But since chemotherapy is localized, side effects are less common.
Radiation therapy (or simply radiotherapy) is the use of high-energy radiation, like x-rays, gamma rays, electron beams or protons, for damaging or killing cancer cells, and for stopping cancer cells from growing and multiplying. The high doses of radiation induces “apoptosis”, a form of cell death wherein a programmed chain of events leads to the destruction of cells without releasing harmful substances into the surrounding area. Radiotherapy is a localized treatment so it generally only affects the part of the body where the radiation is directed.
In some cases, radiation can also damage normal cells. However, normal cells usually repair themselves. During this process, the patient may experience some side effects, depending on the part of the body being treated.
Surgery involves an operation. It is perhaps the oldest type of cancer treatment. It involves removing part, or all, of the tumour. It may also involve change in the organisation of the anatomy or placement of prostheses.
Immunotherapy is a form of treatment that stimulates, restores, or enhances the natural ability of the patient’s immune (defence) system to fight infection and disease. In the past few years, the rapid advancement of technology and the field of cancer immunology has produced several new methods to treat cancer which increase the strength of immune responses against tumours.
Some types of cancer use hormones to grow. Hormone therapy uses certain types of drugs to block the effects of these hormones.
Hormone therapy doesn’t work for all types of cancer so doctors use this type of treatment for patients that are hormone sensitive or hormone dependent.Cancers that can be hormone sensitive are breast cancer, ovarian cancer, uterine/endometrial cancer, prostate cancer, and kidney cancer.
Targeted therapy is a new form of cancer treatment. Until recently, treatment of cancer was largely based on the part of the body where the tumour began, such as the breast or lung. Today, cancer treatment increasingly depends on specific factors of the patient’s tumour, like gene mutations (changes) or proteins that are only found in cancer cells, regardless of the original location of the cancer. Because targeted therapy targets proteins on the surface of cancer cells, it doesn’t damage other cells.
Targeted therapy is often used to complement chemotherapy and other cancer treatments to block the growth and spread of cancer cells. However, this type of cancer treatment is not available for all types of cancer.
Complementary and Alternative Medicine
If you feel like your treatment options are limited or if you need to look for additional ones, you might want to consider complementary and alternative medicine (CAM).
CAM describes a diverse group of treatments, methods, and products that are not considered conventional medicine. A conventional treatment has been scientifically tested, found to be safe and efficient, and is in accordance with the Canadian Food and Drug Regulations.
Complementary medicine is generally used to complement conventional cancer treatment, a method that is often referred to as ‘integrative medicine’. Alternative medicine includes unproven treatment regimens and products used instead of conventional treatments. Some patients seek out alternative medicine after conventional therapies have failed them. CAM therapy may offer physical, emotional, and spiritual support, reduces side effects from medical treatment, and may improve quality of life.
But before considering CAM therapy, you must first consult your doctor just as you would any other treatment approach, as some CAM therapies may interfere with conventional therapies.
Palliative care focuses on prevention, management and relief of symptoms and side effects of cancer treatment. It also provides comprehensive support to cancer patients, as well as their family, friends, and caregivers.
Anyone, regardless of age, type of cancer or stage of cancer, may receive palliative care before, during, and after cancer treatment. Discuss palliative care with your healthcare providers soon after a cancer diagnosis. This helps patients better understand their prognosis and treatment goals, clarify expectations, and maintain quality of life.
You can also consider participating in a clinical trial for treatment of cancer.
Clinical trials are scientific studies that test new ways of preventing, treating, or managing cancer, like developing new drugs or combining existing treatments. Those who participate in a clinical trial are closely monitored to ensure that the treatments are safe and effective. Cancer treatments that are used today were, in fact, developed and tested in various clinical trials.
You may be asked to participate in a trial by your healthcare team, or you might be informed about a trial and ask your healthcare providers about it. Make sure to understand and learn all that you can before deciding to be part of a trial. It may be a good option for one person, but may not be right for someone else.
Get to Know More
Everyone’s need for information is different. However, many people feel better when they can learn and understand more about cancer and their treatment options. By learning and understanding more, you can make the right decisions for your treatment plan.
If you’re looking for additional resources, you can check out the following websites:
- Canadian Cancer Society
- National Cancer Institute of Canada
- Canadian Partnership Against Cancer
- Cancer Care Ontario
- Ontario Institute for Cancer Research
- Alberta Cancer Board
The Canadian Cancer Society also has a search engine where you can quickly find cancer treatment services in your area.