Depending on the type of cancer, where it is located, how advanced it is, and whether it has spread to multiple areas of the body, doctors will choose one or a combination of the treatments below. These treatments can be used as primary therapy (used to kill existing cancer cells) or as adjuvant therapy (used to prevent cancer from coming back).

Surgery

The goal of surgery is to remove all or most of the cancerous tumor(s). Surgery is a very common cancer treatment, but it cannot be used in all cases. For example, cancers of the blood, such as leukemia, do not form tumors. Some tumors may be inoperable because they have grown into or are very close to vital organs. Cancer that has metastasized throughout the body cannot be treated with surgery.

The side effects of cancer surgery are the same as any other kind of surgery and include pain and possible infection. In addition, surgery may damage nearby organs or other important tissue, causing a range of problems.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy uses powerful drugs to kill cancer cells. It is usually given in cycles where the patient is treated for several days and then has a recovery period before another cycle of treatment. There are dozens of chemotherapy drugs, each with its own set of side effects, but the most common side effects are hair loss, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, weakness, fatigue, and a weakened immune system.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy is the use of concentrated radiation to kill cancer cells. While chemotherapy affects the entire body, radiation is usually targeted to specific areas, either by implanting radioactive materials in the body or by using computerized machines that control beams of radiation to deliver a very specific dose. Common side effects of radiation therapy are nausea, vomiting, skin sensitivity or burns, and fatigue.

Other Cancer Treatments

Surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy are the most common treatment types, but other options may be available:

  • Hormone therapy uses drugs and surgery to reduce levels of hormones that make certain kinds of cancers grow, especially breast and prostate cancers.
  • Biological therapy (or immunotherapy) attempts to train the body's own immune system to recognize and fight cancer cells.
  • Gene therapy attempts to alter the DNA of cancer cells, either to return them to normal or to make them more susceptible to other types of treatment.
  • Palliative care focuses on improving overall quality of life for patients and families facing serious illness. Recent research has found that cancer patients receiving palliative care had a better quality life and lived longer than those who only received standard treatment.