Oncology drugs are therapeutics used to treat cancer, a group of diseases caused by uncontrolled growth and division of abnormal cells. Oncology drugs include a range of different types of medications, such as chemotherapy agents, targeted therapies, immunotherapies, and hormone therapies. There are also different types of drugs available to help treat the side effects from oncology drugs.

If you have cancer, it’s likely you’ll have a few options when it comes to treatment. Cancer treatment is constantly evolving and progressing. You now have more drug options to choose from than ever before.

A doctor may recommend that you treat your cancer with one or more of the following types of oncology drugs:

Chemotherapy drugs are chemical agents that work by destroying fast-growing cells in the body. Cancer cells grow and divide more rapidly than other cells. The goal of chemotherapy is to lower the total number of cancer cells in your body and reduce the chances that the cancer will spread to other parts of the body (metastasize).

There are at least 61 chemotherapy drugs approved in the United States. Your doctor may decide to treat your cancer with a a single chemotherapy drug or a combination of chemotherapy drugs.

Hormone therapy is used to treat cancers that rely on hormones to grow. This may include certain types of breast cancer and prostate cancer. Breast cancers may be fed by estrogen or progesterone, while prostate cancers often depend on the hormone androgen.

Some examples of hormone therapies include:

  • leuprolide (Lupron)
  • anastrozole (Arimidex)
  • letrozole (Femara)
  • tamoxifen (Nolvadex)
  • fulvestrant (Faslodex)

Targeted therapies are part of a new approach known as personalized medicine or precision medicine. Targeted therapies are able to seek out and kill cancerous cells without harming the normal cells in your body. These drugs work by blocking the molecular pathways that are critical to tumor growth.

To see if you’re eligible for a particular targeted therapy, a doctor will first perform genetic or biomarker testing. The results of this testing will allow your doctor to make an informed decision about which drug is more likely to work for your type of cancer, based on the genetic mutations or other molecular characteristics of your tumor.

Examples of targeted oncology drugs include:

  • bevacizumab (Avastin)
  • alectinib (Alecensa)
  • ibrutinib (Imbruvica)
  • imatinib (Gleevec)
  • palbociclib (Ibrance)

Immunotherapy is a type of targeted therapy that uses the body’s own immune system to attack cancer cells. Cancer cells sometimes have strategic ways of hiding from your immune system, but immunotherapies work by blocking these mechanisms.

Immunotherapies are approved to treat a variety of cancers. Examples include:

  • nivolumab (Opdivo)
  • pembrolizumab (Keytruda)
  • atezolizumab (Tecentriq)
  • ipilimumab (Yervoy)

Drugs to treat the side effects of oncology treatment

To counter the side effects of oncology drugs, your oncologist may prescribe additional medications. Examples include:

  • drugs to treat low white blood cell counts (neutropenia) and prevent infections, such as pegfilgrastim (Neulasta) or filgrastim (Neupogen)
  • anti-nausea medications
  • pain medications

Oncology drugs have many benefits. Depending on your individual cancer, these drugs may:

  • prevent the spread of cancer to other parts of the body
  • slow cancer growth
  • shrink a tumor so it’s easier to surgically remove
  • reduce the size of tumors if they are putting pressure on something in the body, such as the spine
  • destroy cancer cells that remain after surgery or radiation
  • improve outcomes from other treatments
  • cure cancer

On the other hand, oncology drugs often have side effects and risks. Chemotherapy, for example, can attack some of the normal cells in your body — especially blood cells, skin, hair, and the cells lining the intestine and mouth. This can cause serious side effects that can negatively impact your quality of life.

Common side effects of chemotherapy include:

  • hair loss
  • nausea and vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • mouth sores
  • loss of appetite
  • low white blood cells, which may make it harder to fight off infections
  • fatigue
  • dizziness

Targeted therapies and immunotherapies often have fewer side effects compared to chemotherapy since they only attack cancer cells while sparing healthy cells from harm, but they can still cause side effects. These may include:

  • fatigue
  • cough
  • gastrointestinal side effects, such as diarrhea, constipation, nausea, or loss of appetite
  • rash
  • reaction to the infusion
  • flu-like symptoms

Hormone therapies can block your body’s ability to make hormones, and can interfere with how hormones act in your body. Some common side effects of hormone therapies include:

  • hot flashes
  • fatigue
  • tender breasts
  • loss of interest in sex
  • mood changes
  • nausea
  • diarrhea

Apart from oncology drugs, there are other treatments available for cancer, including:

  • surgery to remove the tumor or tumors, or to remove lymph nodes to prevent the cancer from spreading
  • radiation, which uses high-energy beams to destroy cancer cells
  • stem cell transplants to replace unhealthy bone marrow with healthy stem cells, which can be especially beneficial for people with blood-related cancers, such as leukemia or lymphoma

Other therapies such as acupuncture, meditation, and herbal supplements may help with side effects of cancer treatment, but are ineffective at treating the cancer itself.

Do I get a say in my cancer treatment?

Yes, you can have a say in your cancer treatment, including making the decision to delay treatment or not have treatment at all. You can also seek a second opinion from another qualified doctor. Don’t hesitate to ask your doctor for resources so you can do your own research on available treatments before you make a decision.

How do I find out about experimental treatments?

Ask your doctor about clinical trials taking place in your area. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) maintains a large database of clinical trials at clinicaltrials.gov. You can also search the National Cancer Institute (NCI)’s online tool or contact them for help at 800-4-CANCER.

How does a doctor decide which cancer treatment is best?

There are over 100 types of cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Your oncologist will formulate a recommended treatment plan based on the type of cancer you have, the stage or grade of the cancer, the characteristics of your tumor, your age, overall health, and several other considerations.

To determine the best treatment for you, your oncologist may perform molecular testing on your tumor among other imaging and blood tests. He or she will also likely consult with medical guidelines, such as those set forth by the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN).

To treat cancer, your doctor may recommend one type of oncology drug or a combination of drugs alongside surgery, radiation, or other types of treatment.

Before deciding to move forward with a cancer drug, learn as much as you can about the recommended treatment. Ask your doctor about benefits and risks of your recommended treatment plan and work together to make an informed decision.