There are many ways of treating cancer. Many treatment protocols have been developed that are effective in certain types of disease. Cancer therapy often includes surgery to remove the cancer, to clear obstructions of vital passageways caused by the cancer, or to cut nerves sending pain messages to the brain; chemotherapy (use of powerful drugs to kill cancer cells); radiation therapy (use of radioactive materials in the form of energy beams or radioactive implants to destroy cancer cells); and immunotherapy (use of naturally occurring substances to increase the activity of the body's immune system). Combinations of therapies are often used.
Surgery is the most commonly used method of dealing with cancers that develop into tumors. If cancer is contained in one area, surgery can sometimes completely eliminate it. New surgical techniques are expanding the range of tumors that can be safely removed. Furthermore, if the surgeon is able to remove only a section of the tumor, the reduced tumor can often be successfully controlled with chemotherapy or radiation therapy.
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More precise surgical techniques mean that surgery today is often less disfiguring than in the past. In addition, new developments in skin grafting make it possible to begin reconstructive work on patients -- for instance, those with cancer of the head and neck -- simultaneously with the cancer surgery.
Sometimes surgery is performed on a patient even though it is known that surgery will not cure the cancer. The removal of a tumor may simply make the patient more comfortable. In other cases, nerve pathways to the pain center in the brain may be cut. Certain noncancerous growths are sometimes removed because they may develop into cancer or because they are exerting pressure on adjacent anatomic structures (which may lead to functional problems).
Chemotherapy (the treatment of cancer with drugs) has gradually become more widely used. Many kinds of cancer can be effectively treated with chemotherapy alone. Anticancer drugs are also often used as a supplement to primary treatment, such as surgery. Once surgery has reduced a cancerous growth, chemotherapy can often eliminate it. Chemotherapy has proved effective against some forms of cancer that formerly were almost always fatal, in particular, Hodgkin's disease (cancer of the lymph system), acute lymphocytic leukemia (a blood disease predominantly of children), and cancer of the testes.
Most cancer drugs attack any rapidly reproducing cells in the body, whether they are cancerous or not, producing some of the side effects of chemotherapy. Destruction of normal cells that reproduce frequently, such as those in the digestive tract, the hair follicles, and the bone marrow, can lead to nausea, hair loss, and lowered red blood cell count.
Usually, several drugs used to treat the cancer are administered in combination. If the cancer does not respond to the drugs, or if resistance to a medication develops, another combination of several medications may be tried.
Radiation destroys the ability of cells to divide. Cancer cells are far more susceptible to radiation than normal cells, although not all cancers respond to radiation. Like surgery, radiation therapy is usually a localized treatment, directed at a particular cancer site. Radiation treatment may also involve implanting a radioactive object directly into a tumor, destroying it from within. Radiation can be used before surgery to reduce a tumor to operable size, and frequently a patient receives radiation after surgery to destroy any cancer cells that might remain near the cancer site. Some tumors can be treated by radiation alone.
Radiation therapy is continually being refined. Drugs have been discovered that make cancer cells more sensitive to radiation. Different forms of radiation are being tested on resistant cancers. In addition, radiation today can be directed more precisely, and in stronger forms, with little harm to surrounding tissue. However, there are still side effects, including loss of appetite, nausea, and temporary hair loss. It is not certain how dangerous it is to be treated with radiation, which is itself carcinogenic; however, it is generally considered that a cancer in the body is far more threatening than the future effects of radiation.
The goal of immunotherapy is to enable the patient's body to produce substances that resist the growth of cancer. The theory behind immunotherapy is that cancer develops when, for some reason, the body fails to destroy abnormal cells. Immunotherapy for the treatment of cancer is still in the experimental stage.
A number of prognostic factors (factors that predict length of survival) are important in cancer cases. Most important are the stage and the type of the disease. The earlier the stage of the disease (that is, the earlier in its course it is diagnosed) the better the prognosis is. The type of tumor is also important, since the various types respond differently to treatment. Furthermore, more than one type of cancer can occur within a specific organ. For example, all lung cancers do not involve the same kind of cell. Age and overall physical condition are also important in determining whether or not the patient will be able to win the fight against cancer.
On the next page we will begin our examination of the various types of cancer, staring with some of the most severe and one of the most common -- brain, lung, and skin cancer.
This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.