When Someone You Know Has Cancer

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What are the different types of cancer treatment?

If someone you know is being treated for cancer, you may want to learn more about what they’re going through. Surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation are the most common types of cancer treatment.

Surgery is often the first treatment option if the tumor can be taken out of the body. Sometimes only part of the tumor can be removed. Radiation, chemotherapy, or both might be used to shrink the tumor before or after surgery. For more on this, please see our document called A Guide to Cancer Surgery.

Doctors use chemotherapy (or “chemo”) to kill cancer cells. The term chemotherapy refers to the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. Usually, the drugs are given into a vein (or IV) or they’re taken by mouth. Chemo drugs then travel through the body in the bloodstream, reaching cancer cells that may have spread (metastasized) from the tumor to other places in the body. For more about this, please see A Guide to Chemotherapy.

Radiation therapy uses high energy rays (like x-rays) to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. The radiation may come from outside the body (external radiation) or from radioactive materials put right into the tumor (internal or implant radiation). Getting external radiation is much like getting an x-ray. The radiation itself is painless, but tissue damage may cause side effects. For more information, please Understanding Radiation Therapy: A Guide for Patients and Families.

Other kinds of treatment you might hear about include hormone therapy, stem cell or bone marrow transplant, immunotherapy, and targeted therapy. Hormone therapy is sometimes used to treat certain kinds of prostate and breast cancers. Immunotherapy is treatment designed to boost the cancer patient’s own immune system to help fight the cancer. Targeted therapy is treatment that targets the cancer cells and causes less damage to healthy cells. Please call us or visit our website if you would like to learn more about these types of cancer treatment.

You might know someone else being treated for the same type of cancer, but don’t assume that any two people will respond to treatment the same way. Each cancer is different, and each person’s response to treatment is unique. It’s best not to compare one person to another.

What are the side effects of cancer treatment?

The type of treatment a person gets depends on the cancer type and stage (how far the cancer has spread), the age of the patient, and other medical problems and treatments the person has had. Each drug or treatment plan has different side effects. It’s hard to predict what side effects will occur, even when patients get the same treatment. Some effects can be bad and others fairly mild. Some people have a tough time with cancer treatment, but there are also many who manage quite well and are even able to work throughout treatment.

Chemotherapy side effects

Short-term (and often treatable) side effects of chemo can include nausea and vomiting, loss of appetite, hair loss, and mouth sores. Because chemo can damage the blood-producing cells of the bone marrow, patients may have low blood cell counts. Low blood counts can cause certain side effects, such as:

  • Higher risk of infection (from a shortage of white blood cells)
  • Serious bleeding or bruising after cuts or injuries (from a shortage of blood platelets)
  • Extreme tiredness or fatigue (sometimes from low red blood cell counts)

Cancer care teams carefully watch for and manage chemo side effects.

Because everyone’s body is different, people notice different effects from chemo. Most chemo side effects go away after treatment ends. For instance, hair lost during treatment nearly always grows back after treatment. In the meantime, most patients are able to use wigs, scarves, or hats to cover, warm, or protect their heads.

Radiation therapy side effects

Radiation treatments are much like x-rays and are not painful. The most common side effects are skin irritation and severe tiredness (fatigue). Fatigue is especially common when treatments go on for several weeks. It’s a feeling of extreme tiredness and low energy, which often does not get better with rest. People also report fatigue caused by the daily trips to the hospital to get their radiation treatments.

Many people are able to keep up their normal activities throughout the course radiation treatments, though it’s common for them to adjust their schedules or need more rest until they feel better.

Is cancer treatment worse than cancer?

This is a common myth that can shorten lives. People who believe that cancer treatment is worse than cancer itself might not follow through with treatments that can prolong life or even cure their cancer.

It’s easy to understand the source of this myth. Often people diagnosed with cancer have never had any symptoms or pain. For others, the symptoms have just started and are not too bad yet. But once the treatment starts, they often begin to feel pretty sick. It’s true that chemo, radiation, and surgery can cause distressing and sometimes serious side effects. But most of them can be treated and will go away after treatment ends, and cancer treatment can be life-saving. If cancer is not treated at all, symptoms tend to become worse and worse.

There are times when every cancer patient questions their commitment to the difficult journey of treatment and its side effects. Sometimes they can get discouraged by the uncertainty of treatment and wonder if it’s worth it. This is normal. It may help to remember that every year cancer treatments get more and more effective, and doctors keep learning better ways to control treatment side effects.

Last Medical Review: 05/13/2014
Last Revised: 02/05/2015