A cancer diagnosis comes with many challenges. You may face some important decisions soon, such as choosing a cancer treatment. It can be helpful to understand your options as you move forward. If you find any terms on this page that you’re not familiar with, you may want to check our Glossary of Common Cancer Terms.
Cancer > Working With Your Doctor: Cancer
Common Treatments for Cancer
Ask questions and participate
As you and your doctor discuss treatment options for cancer, it could be a good idea to make this an active discussion. Ask questions, share how you feel, and discuss any goals you have for your treatment. When you actively participate, you can help your doctor decide on the right treatment for you.
Here are some questions you may want to ask your doctor when discussing cancer treatments:
- What options would you recommend for the type of cancer that I have?
- Do I have any cancer biomarkers that could help you determine my treatment?
- Did you do a biomarker test to diagnose my cancer?
- What would my treatment plan look like if I take more than 1 treatment?
- What are some common side effects of each of my treatment options?
What types of cancer treatment are available?
Different types of cancer need different treatments. Some treatments can be used alone, and many are used in combination with other treatments. The kind of treatment you receive depends on the type of tumor, how far the cancer has progressed (or which stage), and the timing relative to other treatments.
Your doctor may test for certain biomarkers in your body. Biomarkers can help your doctor decide what type of treatment is appropriate.
With so many cancer treatment options available, you may need help understanding how each one is different. Here is an overview of some frequently used cancer treatments.
Common cancer treatment types (select to expand)
Surgery is a primary treatment for cancer. It is used to remove a tumor or part of a tumor from the body.
Tumors can be removed or reduced in many ways
In open surgery, the surgeon makes a large cut to remove part or all of the tumor. The surgeon may also remove nearby tissue or lymph nodes.
In laparoscopic surgery, also called minimally invasive surgery, the surgeon makes 2 or more small cuts instead of 1 large one. He or she inserts a laparoscope, which is a thin tube with a camera attached. The laparoscope shows the surgeon pictures or video of the inside of the body. The surgeon then inserts small tools through another cut to remove the tumor and other tissue. Because the cuts are smaller, this kind of surgery allows the patient to recover faster than with open surgery.
In traditional surgery, a surgeon uses a blade to cut out part or all of a tumor. There are also other forms of surgery that use different tools to remove or reduce the size of tumors. To learn more about the kinds of surgery available, visit the National Cancer Institute’s website.
Each kind of surgery comes with its own benefits, risks, and side effects. Ask your doctor how different types of surgery could affect your daily life.
Chemotherapy is a type of treatment used to keep cancer cells from growing or producing new cancer cells. It is usually given in cycles over a period of days or weeks. A cycle is a period of chemotherapy treatment followed by a period of rest.
It can be used to
- Reduce the size of a tumor before or after surgery
- Destroy cancer cells that may remain after surgery
In some cases, chemotherapy may be used as the primary treatment, without surgery.
Chemotherapy drugs may be given several different ways:
- By infusion into a vein with a needle and catheter
- By injection into a muscle, under the skin, or into an artery
- By mouth as a pill, capsule, or liquid
- Applied to the skin as a cream or lotion
If you have other health conditions, they may affect the kind of chemotherapy you can receive. Before you begin chemotherapy, talk with your doctor about these conditions.
Click here to learn more about chemotherapy.
During radiation therapy, high doses of radiation are used to destroy cancer cells, reduce the size of tumors, or slow tumor growth. Like chemotherapy, radiation treatments can be spread out over several days or weeks. Even after the radiation therapy ends, cancer cells may continue to die.
External beam radiation therapy
In external beam radiation therapy, a focused beam of radiation is sent from a machine into 1 area of the body. It is a localized treatment, meaning that it only treats the specific part of the body where cancer is found.
Internal radiation therapy
In internal radiation therapy, the radiation source is put inside the body. The source can be solid or liquid.
Radiation sources can be delivered at a low level for several days at a time or at a high level for just a few minutes.
To learn more about radiation therapy, visit the National Cancer Institute’s website.
Targeted therapies attack specific chemicals that cancer cells use to grow. In other words, the drugs are designed to "target" the cancer cells with precision. This differs from traditional chemotherapy, which typically affects other cells in the body.
There are many kinds of targeted therapy, and they can treat cancer in different ways. Here are a few examples of targeted therapies:
- Angiogenesis inhibitors stop new blood vessels from forming near tumors. This can prevent the tumor from growing
- Antibody loaded therapies use antibodies to bind to cancer cells and deliver toxic substances (such as chemotherapy) that damage cancer cells from within
- Hormone therapies keep tumors from getting the hormones they need to grow. These therapies may prevent the production of those hormones or change how the hormones interact with the cancer cells
- Immunotherapies can act on chemicals that aid the body’s immune system. These therapies can help the immune system kill cancer cells
- Signal transduction inhibitors block chemical signals within cancer cells, which can cause the cancer cells to stop growing
Click here to learn more about targeted therapy.
Treatment sequences for cancer
For many cancer patients, more than 1 type of treatment may be needed. Often, doctors prescribe a sequence of treatments. Depending on the kind of cancer you have, these 4 treatment groups may be used in different phases of the cancer treatment process:
- Neoadjuvant treatments are used to shrink a tumor before the primary (or main) treatment, or help to make the primary treatment more effective.
- Primary treatment is typically surgery. The primary treatment gets rid of the bulk of a tumor or removes it completely. In some cases, surgery is not possible, so another form of treatment becomes the primary treatment.
- Adjuvant treatments can be used in combination with surgery or soon after, to help lower the risk that the cancer will come back.
- Maintenance treatments are given to keep cancer from progressing after the primary treatment has controlled the disease. Usually, they can be given for a longer period of time.
Side effects of cancer treatments
Side effects are likely with any kind of cancer treatment. Each type of treatment has its own set of side effects.
Chemotherapy and radiation therapy frequently come with side effects because the treatment doesn’t only work on cancer cells—it can have an impact on healthy cells too. Targeted therapies and surgery can also cause side effects. Talk with your doctor about the side effects that may accompany your treatment. Your doctor may be able to offer ways to manage side effects to make them more tolerable while you’re on treatment.
Getting support while you experience side effects
It’s OK to ask for help when you’re receiving cancer treatment. For instance, on days that you receive treatment, you may need someone else to drive you to and from your appointments. You may not have the energy to do everyday tasks for a little while, like cleaning, cooking, and caring for children. Consider asking friends and family members to see if they might want to help.
Be sure to eat foods that help you keep up your strength on the days before and after receiving treatment. This includes foods high in protein such as eggs, milk, and cheese. If you have trouble eating due to side effects, tell your health care team. You may also want to speak with a dietitian for ideas about what to eat while you are experiencing side effects.