After Diagnosis: A Guide for Patients and Families

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Common types of cancer treatment


Many people with cancer have surgery, especially if the cancer appears to be contained in one area (localized). Surgery may be used to remove it along with any nearby tissue that might contain cancer cells.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell how much surgery will be needed until the surgeon sees the extent of the cancer during the operation. Surgery is most successful when the tumor has not spread to other areas. Surgery offers the greatest chance of a cure for many types of cancer. It may also be used to treat problems caused by cancer, such as taking out a tumor that’s blocking the intestine.

Other treatments, such as radiation therapy and chemotherapy, may be used along with surgery. They may be given before or after the surgery.

Radiation therapy

Like surgery, radiation (ray-dee-A-shun) therapy is used mostly to treat localized cancers – those contained in one area. It’s used to relieve problems caused by cancer, too. For example, it can be used to shrink a tumor that’s pressing on a nerve and causing pain. Radiation destroys cancer cells or damages them so they can’t grow. It can be used alone or along with surgery or chemotherapy. More than half of all people with cancer get radiation at some point.

Radiation is given 2 ways: either through external high-energy rays or through implants put in the body near the tumor.

External radiation

Getting external radiation is painless, much like having an x-ray taken. It’s usually done in an outpatient setting, and the treatments take very little time. Treatment is most often given 5 days a week for 5 to 8 weeks, depending on the size, place, and type of cancer being treated.

Radiation implants

In some cases, radiation may be given through implants placed inside the body. Another name for radiation given as an implant is brachytherapy (brake-ee-THER-uh-pee).

This type of radiation uses small containers of radiation that are placed in or near the tumor while a person is in a deep sleep (under general anesthesia [an-es-THEE-zhuh]) or after the area is numbed (local anesthesia). They allow a person to get a higher total dose of radiation to a smaller area and in a shorter amount of time than with external radiation. Some implants can be put in at an outpatient center, while others may require that the person stay in the hospital for a few days. The placement can be permanent or temporary.

Side effects of radiation therapy

Side effects vary from patient to patient and depend on the part of the body being treated and the amount of radiation used. The most common side effects are feeling tired, skin changes in the area of treatment, and some loss of appetite. Other side effects usually are related to the treatment of specific areas, such as hair loss after radiation treatment to the head. Most side effects go away in time, but some might last or might not show up until years later. Be sure to talk to your health care team about any problems you have – there are often ways to help.


While surgery and radiation therapy are used mainly to treat localized cancers, chemotherapy ([key-mo-THER-uh-pee] often called just “chemo” [key-mo]) is used to treat cancer cells that have spread to other parts of the body. Depending on the type of cancer and its stage, chemo can be used to cure cancer, to keep it from spreading, to kill cancer cells that may have already spread, to slow the cancer’s growth, or to relieve symptoms caused by cancer.

Chemo is sometimes given before surgery to shrink a tumor before it’s removed. Chemo is also sometimes used after surgery, to lower the risk of cancer returning.

What is chemo?

Chemo is treatment with strong drugs that are most often given by mouth or by injection. Most often, a combination of chemo drugs is used. Unlike radiation therapy or surgery, chemo drugs can treat cancers that have spread throughout the body because they travel through the bloodstream.

How is chemo given?

Chemo is given in cycles, each followed by a rest period. A cycle may be one dose followed by several days or weeks without treatment. This gives the normal cells in the body time to recover from the drug’s side effects. Doses may also be given several days in a row, or every other day for several days, followed by a period of rest. Some drugs work best when given non-stop over several days.

Different drugs work best on different schedules. If more than 1 drug is used, the treatment plan will show how often and exactly when each drug should be given. The number of cycles you get may be planned before treatment starts (based on the type and stage of cancer) or may be flexible, in order to see how the treatment affects the cancer and your overall health.

Side effects of chemo

Side effects of chemo depend on the type of drugs, the amounts taken, and the length of the treatment. The most common side effects are nausea and vomiting, short-term hair loss, increased chance of infections, and fatigue (tiredness). Some chemo drugs can have other side effects. Be sure to ask your doctor or nurse what to watch for based on the drugs you’re getting.

Most side effects can be controlled with medicines, supportive care, or by changing the treatment schedule. If you have side effects, ask your doctor or nurse about ways to help ease them. It’s important to tell your health care team about any side effects you have because some, like fever and infection, may need to be treated right away.

People getting chemo sometimes become discouraged about the length of time the treatment is taking or the side effects they’re having. If that happens to you, talk to your doctor. There are often 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 have because of it.

Other drugs used to treat cancer

Some new cancer treatments use drugs that are different from what most people think of as chemo. Examples of these drugs are biologic therapies and targeted therapies.

Biologic (by-o-LA-jick) therapies are sometimes called immunotherapy (im-yuh-no-THER-uh-pee). These treatments use the body’s immune system to fight cancer or lessen the side effects of some cancer treatments. Biologic therapies can act in several ways. They can stop or slow down cancer cell growth, help healthy immune cells control cancer, or help repair normal cells damaged by other forms of cancer treatment.

Targeted therapies are drugs that target the specific gene changes that help cancer cells grow. They attack the cancer cells’ inner workings – the parts that make them different from normal, healthy cells.

These drugs tend to have side effects different (and often less severe) from standard chemo drugs. They are often given along with standard chemo and/or other cancer treatments.Complementary and alternative therapy

When you have cancer, you are likely to hear about ways to treat the disease or relieve symptoms that are different from mainstream (standard) medical treatments. These methods can include vitamins, herbs, special diets, or methods such as acupuncture or massage – among many others.

Not everyone describes complementary and alternative therapies the same way, so it can be confusing. The American Cancer Society uses complementary to refer to medicines or treatments that are used along with your regular medical care. Alternative treatments are those used instead of standard medical treatment.

Complementary methods most often are used to help you feel better. Some examples are meditation to reduce stress, acupuncture to relieve pain, or peppermint tea to ease nausea. There are many others. Some of these methods are known to help, and others have not been tested. Some have been proven not to be helpful, and a few have even been found harmful.

Alternative treatments are those that are used instead of standard medical care. These treatments have not been proven safe, and clinical trials have not been done to prove that they work. Some of these methods may even be harmful. The biggest danger in most cases is that you may lose the chance to benefit from standard treatment. Delays or interruptions in your medical treatments may give the cancer more time to grow and make it less likely that treatment will help.

Sometimes people suggest that their method can cure cancer without having serious side effects, and it’s normal to want to believe them. But the truth is that most of these treatments have not been tested or proven to work in treating cancer.

Contact us at 1-800-227-2345 to learn more about complementary and alternative methods in general and to find out about the specific methods you are looking at. You can also check them out on the Complementary and Alternative Medicine page of

Clinical trials

You may have had to make a lot of decisions since you’ve been told you have cancer. One of the most important decisions you will make is choosing which treatment is best for you. You may have heard about clinical trials being done for your type of cancer. Or maybe someone on your health care team has mentioned a clinical trial to you.

Clinical trials are carefully controlled research studies that are done with patients. These studies test whether a new treatment is safe and how well it works. Clinical trials may also test new ways to find or prevent a disease. These studies have led to many new ways to prevent, diagnose, and treat cancer.

A clinical trial is only done when there is good reason to believe that the treatment, test, or procedure being studied may be better than the one used now. Treatments used in clinical trials are often found to have real benefits. If that happens, they may go on to become tomorrow’s standard treatment.

To find out more about clinical trials for your type of cancer, ask your cancer care team if your clinic or hospital offers clinical trials. The American Cancer Society also offers a clinical trials matching service, which can help you find a clinical trial that’s right for you. You can reach this service at 1-800-303-5691 or at

Taking part in a clinical trial does not keep you from getting any other medical care you need. You are free to leave the study at any time, for any reason. You can get a lot more information on clinical trials in our document called Clinical Trials: What You Need to Know. You can read it on or call us to have it sent to you.

Last Medical Review: 03/06/2014
Last Revised: 04/07/2014