How are cancers in adolescents treated?
Older people are much more likely than younger people to get cancer, so most doctors who treat cancer see mainly older adults. (Doctors who treat cancer are called oncologists.) Some doctors (called pediatric oncologists) specialize in treating childhood cancers. Each type of doctor tends to work in an office or cancer center geared toward treating either older adults or children. There are very few doctors who focus specifically on teens and young adults with cancer, so it’s not always clear which type of doctor (or treatment center) might be best. It often depends on the patient’s age and the type of cancer.
Cancers in teens and young adults that are more common in children, such as acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL), bone sarcomas, and rhabdomyosarcoma, are often best treated by pediatric oncologists, who have more experience with these types of cancer. On the other hand, teens with “adult” cancers, such as melanoma or thyroid cancer, might benefit from doctors who treat older adults and see these types of cancers more often.
Doctors tend to use more intense treatments when treating children with cancer than when treating adults. Children’s bodies are generally better able to recover from higher doses of chemotherapy than are adults’ bodies. And in general, childhood cancers often respond better to chemo because they tend to be cancers that grow fast. (Most forms of chemo affect cells that are growing quickly.)
For some cancers (especially “childhood” cancers like ALL and bone sarcomas), the more aggressive treatments used for children have been found to improve outcomes for teens and young adults as well, but for other cancers the results are not as clear. Again, this can depend on the patient’s age and the type of cancer.
Types of cancer treatments
The main types of treatment for cancers in teens are the same as those used in other age groups. The choice of treatment depends mainly on the type and stage (extent) of the cancer. Sometimes more than one type of treatment is used.
It’s important to discuss all of your treatment options as well as their possible side effects with your doctors to help make the decision that best fits your needs.
Surgery is a common treatment, especially for early stage cancers. The type and amount of surgery needed depends on the type and location of the cancer.
Teens have some advantages when it comes to surgery in that they usually have fewer health problems than older adults, and there are fewer concerns about anesthesia than there are with younger children. (Anesthesia is the use of drugs or gases to put you into a deep sleep and not feel pain.) But teens’ bodies are often still growing, so in some cases they can be affected more by surgery than older adults.
For more information, see our document Understanding Cancer Surgery: A Guide for Patients and Families.
Radiation therapy is the use of high-energy rays (such as x-rays) or particles to kill cancer cells. Teens are less likely to have major side effects from radiation than younger children because their bodies are no longer growing as quickly. But some parts of the body, such as the breast, ovaries, or testicles, can still be very sensitive to the effects of radiation if they are still developing. Radiation can cause some late or long-term side effects, which are discussed in the section “Late and long-term effects of cancer treatment in adolescents.”
For more information, see the “Radiation Therapy” section of our website or our document Understanding Radiation Therapy: A Guide for Patients and Families.
Chemotherapy and targeted drugs
Chemotherapy (chemo) is the use of drugs to treat cancer. Some drugs can be swallowed in pill form, while others are injected by needle into a vein or muscle. Chemo is often used to treat cancers that have spread, but it can also be used for earlier stage cancers (usually along with other treatments).
Chemo drugs can cause side effects because they affect cells that are dividing quickly. Teens can usually withstand higher doses of chemo than older adults, but these higher doses can also cause more short- and long-term side effects.
For more information, see the “Chemotherapy” section of our website or our document Understanding Chemotherapy: A Guide for Patients and Families.
For some types of cancer, newer targeted drugs can be used instead of or along with standard chemo drugs. These drugs work by attacking certain parts of cancer cells (or nearby cells) that help them grow. Targeted drugs sometimes work when standard chemo drugs don’t, and they have different (and often less severe) side effects.
For more information, see our document Targeted Therapy.
Stem cell transplant
A stem cell transplant, formerly called a bone marrow transplant, is a way for doctors to give very high doses of chemotherapy (sometimes along with radiation therapy). It’s an option for treating some cancers, usually if other treatments are not working.
Without a stem cell transplant, the doses of chemo drugs that can be given are limited because they could severely damage the bone marrow, where new blood cells are made. This could lead to life-threatening infections, bleeding, and other problems because of low blood cell counts.
When a stem cell transplant is done, blood-forming stem cells are first collected from the blood of either the patient or from a matched stem cell donor using a special machine. The stem cells are kept frozen while the patient gets very high doses of chemo (and sometimes radiation) to kill the cancer cells. Afterwards, the stem cells are infused into a vein much like a blood transfusion. They settle in the bone marrow and start making new blood cells over the next few weeks.
A stem cell transplant is a complex treatment that can cause life-threatening side effects. Stem cell transplants often require a lengthy hospital stay and cost a lot. It’s important to understand the possible benefits, risks, and costs of this procedure if it’s an option.
For more information, see our document Stem Cell Transplant (Peripheral Blood, Bone Marrow, and Cord Blood Transplants).
The cancer treatment team
Teens with cancer may have different types of doctors on their treatment team, depending on the type and stage of the cancer and their treatment options. These doctors may include:
- Cancer surgeons (sometimes called surgical oncologists): doctors who use surgery to treat cancer. Surgeons often specialize in treating a certain part of the body or a body system (such as the reproductive system or the digestive tract).
- Medical oncologists: doctors who use chemotherapy and other medicines to treat adults with cancer
- Pediatric oncologists: doctors who use medicines to treat children and teens with cancer
- Radiation oncologists: doctors who specialize in using radiation to treat cancer
- Nurse practitioners and physician assistants (PAs): nurses and other professionals who are specially trained and licensed to practice medicine alongside doctors
Many other specialists might be involved as well, including nurses, rehabilitation and physical therapists, nutritionists, social workers, and other health professionals. They can provide help and guidance with many issues facing teens and their families, such as treatment effects on fertility, education or employment needs, health insurance concerns, and financial issues.
Clinical trials are carefully controlled research studies that are done with patients who volunteer for them. They are used to learn more about promising new treatments or procedures.
Clinical trials are one way to get state-of-the art cancer treatment. Sometimes they may be the only way to get some newer treatments. They are also the only way for doctors to learn better ways to treat cancer. Still, they are not right for everyone.
Children’s cancer centers often conduct many clinical trials at any one time, and most children treated at these centers take part in a clinical trial as part of their treatment. This is one of the reasons why there has been great progress in treating many childhood cancers in recent decades.
Overall, teens are less likely to take part in clinical trials. There are many reasons for this, including the many different cancer types and treatment settings, lack of knowledge about clinical trials (from both doctors and patients), patient/family reluctance to enter clinical trials, and financial issues. Unfortunately, many experts believe this low enrollment in clinical trials is one of the main reasons for the lack of progress in treating cancers in teens and young adults.
If you would like to know more about clinical trials, start by asking your doctor if your clinic or hospital takes part in clinical trials. You can also call our clinical trials matching service for a list of studies that might be right for you (or your child). You can reach this service at 1-800-303-5691 or on our website at www.cancer.org/clinicaltrials. You can also get a list of current clinical trials by calling the National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Information Service toll-free at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237) or by visiting the NCI clinical trials website at www.cancer.gov/clinicaltrials.
To learn more about clinical trials, see our document Clinical Trials: What You Need to Know.
Last Medical Review: 02/13/2014
Last Revised: 02/13/2014