Conventional cancer treatments

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Your doctor and care team will tailor a treatment plan depending on the type of cancer you have. Learn about the basic types of cancer treatments, so you'll know what to expect.

Surgery

More than half of people with cancer are treated with surgery. Common side effects are pain, tiredness, and loss of appetite, but there may be other side effects depending on the body parts affected by the surgery. Guided imagery can help manage some of your side effects.

Surgery increases your body's need for nutrients and energy so that it can heal wounds and fight infection. If you're malnourished before surgery, it may slow your recovery.

Chemotherapy

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Chemotherapy uses drugs that attack fast-growing cells to destroy cancer, stop cancer cells from spreading, or slow the growth of cancer cells.

There are lots of kinds of chemotherapy, and it can be combined with other treatments. It can be given intravenously (through an IV) or as a shot, pill, liquid, or cream you rub on your skin.

Because chemotherapy also kills fast-growing healthy cells, like those in your mouth, digestive tract, and hair follicles, it can cause side effects throughout your body:

  • nausea and vomiting
  • appetite changes
  • bleeding problems
  • constipation or diarrhea
  • fatigue and memory changes
  • fluid retention
  • hair loss
  • infections
  • mouth sores and inflammation
  • pain
  • sexual side effects

Everyone is different. Some people feel tired, while others feel well enough to keep a normal schedule.

Woman with grandchildIf you're receiving more than one anticancer medication, you may have more side effects, or more intense ones.

Your doctor will talk to you about what kind of medications you'll receive, how often, and things you can do at home if you're having trouble eating.

The rest period in between treatments gives your body time to build healthy new cells.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy treats cancer by damaging cancer cells' DNA, or genetic code, which causes the cells to die and tumors to shrink. About half of all people with cancer receive radiation therapy, sometimes in combination with other cancer treatments.

Something that's radioactive may be placed in your body near a tumor (brachytherapy), injected into your blood (systemic radiation therapy), or sent into your body by a machine (external beam radiation therapy, intensity modulated radiation therapy, or stereotactic body radiation therapy). The area chosen for treatment usually includes the whole tumor plus a small amount of normal tissue.

The type of radiation therapy you receive depends on the cancer you have, so the side effects vary. For example, radiation to your abdomen can cause skin irritation, swelling, fatigue, as well as a loss of appetite, nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting, which may make it hard to eat well during treatment. Radiation therapy can also cause side effects months or even years after treatment ends, such as:

  • memory loss
  • infertility
  • damage to your bowels that causes diarrhea and bleeding
  • fibrosis, or the replacement of normal tissue with scar tissue
  • a second cancer caused by radiation exposure

Some people find using guided imagery helps them cope with radiation's side effects.

Targeted cancer therapies

Doctor examining a manTargeted cancer therapies are substances that interfere with tumors' growth.

They target cancer cells, so they're less harmful to healthy cells.

There are lots of targeted therapies. Some kinds starve cancer cells, tell cancer cells to die, or deliver poisons to cancer cells. Others target the cancer cells' DNA. Their side effects vary.

Angiogenesis inhibitors prevent new blood vessels from growing, so tumors don't have the blood they need to live. They can slow or stop a tumor's growth, but they may not completely destroy it. Common side effects are bleeding problems, blood clots that can cause strokes or heart attacks, and high blood pressure.

Biologic therapy helps your immune system recognize and kill cancerous cells, so your body's defenses can slow or stop the cancer's growth. Side effects vary, but they include rashes or swelling near an injection site, flu-like symptoms, and lower blood pressure.

Targeted therapies may work best in combination with other treatments, because cancer cells can develop resistance to them.

Bone marrow or stem cell transplant

Bone marrow is a soft, spongy tissue inside your bones that nurtures immature stem cells and blood cells. They grow quickly, as do cancer cells, so the chemotherapy and radiation therapy can also kill them. If you don't have enough bone marrow cells, you may not have enough blood cells to keep you healthy.

Transplants restore stem and blood cells destroyed by chemotherapy or radiation therapy. Cells for the transplants can come from you (autologous transplants) or someone else (allogenic transplants). Doctors use cells that most closely match your own to reduce side effects, which include higher risks of infection, bleeding, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, loss of appetite, mouth sores, hair loss, and skin problems.

Palliative care

People holding handsPalliative care includes a wide range of treatments and services to make you more comfortable, to treat or prevent side effects, or to help you with emotional and spiritual issues. It's a misconception that it's just for those who are dying. It's given throughout your treatment to improve quality of life and care for the whole you.

Reviewed by Kaiser Permanente in 2018

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