If you or a loved one has received a cancer diagnosis, you're not alone.
With approximately 1.9 million new cancer cases diagnosed annually, according to the American Cancer Society, that's roughly 5,250 new cases every day in the United States.
And after a diagnosis comes treatment decisions.
Here, experts will simplify the most common cancer treatments, including chemotherapy, radiation therapy, immunotherapy, surgery, targeted therapy, hormone therapy, bone marrow/stem cell transplant and clinical trials. This will help you explore your options and empower you with knowledge during this challenging time.
Cancer is no longer the unbeatable foe it once was. As of January 2022, there are approximately 18.1 million cancer survivors in the United States, comprising about 5.4% of the population. This number is projected to surge by 24.4%, to 22.5 million by 2032, the National Cancer Institute says.
This progress is attributed to advancements in cancer treatments and a growing emphasis on healthier lifestyles. The following sections will examine the various treatment options contributing to this positive shift in cancer outcomes.
Chemotherapy leverages potent chemicals to target and destroy fast-growing cells within your body, as described by the Mayo Clinic. As cancer cells tend to grow and divide rapidly, they are particularly susceptible to these medications.
Despite its effectiveness, chemotherapy can cause significant side effects, which may vary depending on the drugs used and individual responses. Common side effects include:
Radiation therapy for cancer uses various techniques, the most common being external beam radiation therapy (EBRT) and internal radiation therapy, per the Cleveland Clinic. Your radiation oncologist will carefully assess your condition and cancer type to determine the most suitable approach.
Radiation therapy operates on a simple, yet powerful, principle: it employs radiation, usually high-powered X-rays, to annihilate cancer cells. This is achieved by disrupting the DNA within cancer cells, rendering them unable to grow or multiply. Consequently, the cancer cells perish, and tumors begin to shrink.
While radiation therapy holds promise in cancer treatment, it can cause side effects, which may include:
In a video on the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s website, Dr. Jyoti Patel, with the oncology department at Northwestern Medical Group, explains that immunotherapy uses your body’s own immune system to fight cancer. “There are a couple of different ways to do it,” she said.
“We can stimulate your immune system or rev it up to recognize and fight cancer. We can also give patients part of the immune system, such as proteins or antibodies that help the system fight the cancer,” Patel added.
Immunotherapy can bring about various side effects. The National Cancer Institute provides the following list of immunotherapy side effects:
Like all cancer treatments, surgery carries potential side effects, according to the Mayo Clinic:
Targeted therapy is designed to attack specific cancer cells with precision. According to the American Cancer Society, these therapies employ drugs or substances that identify and combat particular types of cancer cells, either as a standalone treatment or in conjunction with chemotherapy, surgery or radiation.
Cancer cells often exhibit genetic changes that set them apart from healthy cells, causing abnormal behaviors such as rapid growth and division. Drugs developed for targeted therapy are tailored to intercept these aberrant signals. They can block cancer cells' growth-inducing messages or trigger the cells' self-destruction.
While targeted therapy offers promising results, it may yield side effects such as:
Hormone therapy is specifically designed to slow or halt the growth of cancers fueled by hormones, the National Cancer Institute says.
For men undergoing hormone therapy for prostate cancer, potential side effects may include:
Conversely, women receiving hormone therapy for breast cancer may experience:
A bone marrow transplant, also known as a stem cell transplant, is a treatment for cancer that introduces healthy blood-forming stem cells into the body. This infusion serves to replace bone marrow that isn’t creating an adequate supply of healthy blood cells.
The Mayo Clinic explains that bone marrow transplants are employed for several reasons, including:
The transplant process involves a phase known as conditioning, wherein chemotherapy and sometimes radiation are administered. This stage serves to eliminate cancer cells, suppress the immune system and prepare the bone marrow for the incoming stem cells. The specific approach to conditioning varies based on the underlying disease and overall health.
Side effects of the conditioning process include:
Clinical trials are research studies involving people, offering promising avenues for cancer treatment, diagnosis, prevention and symptom management. Whenever you or a loved one face a cancer diagnosis, considering participation in a clinical trial can open doors to innovative solutions.
Cancer clinical trials are thoughtfully designed to explore novel approaches for:
Each clinical trial operates under a detailed study plan called a protocol, outlining the trial's structure, procedures, and objectives. Eligibility criteria are also included, determining who can participate based on factors like cancer type, prior therapies, genetic markers, age, medical history and health status.
The Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center recommends the following steps to be considered for a clinical trial:
It’s important to know that in many cases, your cancer care team may share potential clinical trials with you proactively.
American Cancer Society Journals: Cancer Statistics, 2022
National Cancer Institute: Statistics and Graphs
Mayo Clinic: Chemotherapy
Cleveland Clinic: Radiation Therapy
American Society of Clinical Oncology: What Is Immunotherapy?
National Cancer Institute: Immunotherapy Side Effects
National Cancer Institute: Surgery to Treat Cancer
Mayo Clinic: Cancer Surgery: Physically Removing Cancer
American Cancer Society: How Targeted Therapies Are Used to Treat Cancer
American Cancer Society: Targeted Therapy Side Effects
National Cancer Institute: Hormone Therapy to Treat Cancer
Mayo Clinic: Bone Marrow Transplant
National Cancer Institute: Clinical Trials Information for Patients and Caregivers
National Cancer Institute: Deciding to Take Part in a Clinical Trial
Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center: How to Join a Clinical Trial
Getting a cancer diagnosis can be scary, but there are a multitude of treatments out there to tackle the disease. Here, experts walk you through your options.