What Cancer Treatment Will Be Best for Me?

Your cancer treatment will be entirely based on your unique situation. Certain types of cancer respond very differently to different types of treatment, so determining the type of cancer is a vital step toward knowing which treatments will be most effective. The cancer's stage (how widespread it is) will also determine the best course of treatment, since early-stage cancers respond to different therapies than later-stage ones. Your overall health, your lifestyle, and your personal preferences will also play a part in deciding which treatment options will be best for you. Not all types of treatment will be effective in your situation, so be sure that you understand your options. Don't be afraid to ask questions; it is your right to know what treatments are most likely to help you and what their side effects may be.

Palliative versus Curative Goals: Before starting treatment, ask about the goal of treatment. Is the purpose of the treatment to cure the cancer, control it, or treat symptoms? Sometimes the goal of treatment can change.

The four major types of treatment for cancer are surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, and biologic therapies. You might also have heard about hormone therapies such as tamoxifen and transplant options such as those done with bone marrow.

Biologic Therapies
There is a lot of evidence that suggests that the immune system, the body's natural defense mechanism, plays a major role in the body's response to cancer. At least some forms of cancer occur when the immune system fails to destroy cancer cells or to prevent their growth. Biologic therapy is an effective treatment for certain cancers. It is sometimes called immunotherapy, biotherapy, or biological response modifier therapy. Biologic therapies use the body's immune system to fight cancer or to lessen the side effects of some cancer treatments.

Biologic therapies can act in several ways in cancer treatment. These include interfering with cancer cell growth, acting indirectly to help healthy immune cells control cancer, and helping to repair normal cells damaged by other forms of cancer treatment.

There are several kinds of biologic therapy now in use. More than one kind of biologic therapy may be used, or biologic therapy may be combined with chemotherapy or radiation therapy to treat cancer.

Complementary and Alternative Therapy
People have many different opinions about alternative and complementary therapies. You may hear words such as questionable, unorthodox, unconventional, new age, holistic, natural, or herbal used to describe these therapies. Some people look on them with disdain, while others strongly subscribe to their use. Standard or conventional treatment refers to mainstream medical treatments that have been tested following a strict set of scientific guidelines and found to be safe and effective. Alternative therapy refers to treatments that have not proven to be effective in treating a particular disease and are used instead of conventional treatment. Examples of these include hydrogen peroxide therapy, hydrazine sulfate, and essiac tea.

Complementary therapy refers to non-medical treatments used along with conventional medical treatments to help control symptoms and improve well-being. Examples include relaxation massage, and biofeedback. The goal of complementary therapy treatments is not to cure disease, but to help relieve symptoms or side effects. The term integrative medicine is used to describe the combination of mainstream and complementary methods.

Integrative medicine is safest and most effective when it is supervised by your doctor. Some herbal extracts (like echinachea, ginkgo, or valerian root) can actually be very potent or even dangerous, especially in combination with other medications. Before using any complementary therapy, be sure to discuss it with your doctor. There are many complementary methods you can safely use along with standard treatment to relieve symptoms or side effects, to ease pain, and to help you enjoy life more. Complementary methods that some people have found helpful when used along with medical treatment include aromatherapy, art therapy, biofeedback, massage, meditation, music therapy, prayer, t'ai chi, and yoga. If you are interested in complementary methods of treatment but are still unsure, gather all of the information you can so you can make an informed decision. However, be wary of any method that claims it can cure cancer.

While surgery and radiation therapy are used to treat localized cancers, chemotherapy is used to treat cancer cells that have metastasized (spread) to other parts of the body. Depending on the type of cancer and its stage of development, chemotherapy can be used to cure cancer, to keep the cancer from spreading, to slow the cancer's growth, to kill cancer cells that may have spread to other parts of the body, or to relieve symptoms caused by cancer.

Chemotherapy is treatment with powerful medicines that are most often given by mouth or by injection. Unlike radiation therapy or surgery, chemotherapy drugs can treat cancers that have spread throughout the body, because they travel throughout the body in the bloodstream. Often, a combination of chemotherapy is used instead of a single drug.

Chemotherapy is given in cycles, each followed by a recovery period. The total course of chemotherapy is often about six months, usually ranging from three to nine months. After a cancer is removed by surgery, chemotherapy can significantly reduce the risk of cancer returning. The chances of cancer returning and the potential benefit of chemotherapy depend on the type of cancer and other individual factors.

Side Effects of Chemotherapy
Side effects of chemotherapy depend on the type of drugs, the amounts taken, and the length of treatment. The most common are nausea and vomiting, temporary hair loss, increased chance of infections, and fatigue. Many of these side effects can be uncomfortable or emotionally upsetting. However, most side effects can be controlled with medicines, supportive care measures, or by changing the treatment schedule. If you experience side effects, ask your doctor about ways to help ease or eliminate them. Also, keep your doctor informed of all side effects that you experience, as some may require immediate medical attention.

Fatigue is one of the most common side effects of radiation and chemotherapy. Like most other side effects, it will disappear once the treatment is complete. You can help yourself by getting enough rest, eating a well-balanced diet, drinking plenty of liquids, and by planning your activities to include frequent rest periods.

Though it is not medically harmful, hair loss can be an upsetting side effect. Most people feel that their hairstyle is a part of their identity, so it is only normal that hair loss is distressing. Some people experience hair loss during chemotherapy treatments (and sometimes with radiation treatment to the head) while others do not, even with the same drugs. Not all drugs cause hair loss. When it does occur, the hair almost always grows back after the treatments are completed. If hair loss does occur, it usually begins within two weeks of the start of therapy and gets worse 1-2 months after the start of therapy. Hair regrowth often begins even before therapy is completed. Most people are able to find suitable ways of managing the hair loss until it grows back, with specially designed hats, scarves, and wigs.

People having chemotherapy sometimes become discouraged about the length of time their treatment is taking or the side effects they are having. If that happens to you, talk to your doctor. There are ways to reduce the side effects or make them easier to manage. Keep in mind that the expected benefits of the treatment should outweigh any problems you might have because of it.
Cancer Pain
Pain is one of the reasons people fear cancer so much. If someone you know has cancer, it is normal to be afraid of witnessing pain. In fact, there are some cancers, which cause no physical pain at all. When it does occur, cancer pain can happen for a variety of reasons. Some people have pain as a result of the growth of a tumor or as a result of advanced cancer, while others may experience pain as a result of treatment side effects.

You should also know that doctors can treat and manage cancer pain with modern techniques and medicines. A great deal of progress has been made in pain control, so pain can be reduced or alleviated in almost all cases. Even patients with advanced disease can be kept comfortable.

You may also be concerned that someone taking pain medication for cancer will become addicted to the medication. However, all evidence shows that people who take prescribed drugs for cancer pain do not become addicted. In addition, some methods of pain reduction, such as acupuncture and guided imagery, do not involve drugs.