If Cancer Treatments Stop Working

If one type of cancer treatment stops working and the cancer either keeps growing or comes back, another type of treatment might help. But when many different treatments have been tried and are no longer controlling the cancer, it could be time to weigh the benefits and risks of continuing to try new treatments.

Whether or not you continue treatment, there are things you can do to help maintain or improve your quality of life.

  • New treatments, including those available through clinical trials, may work, even when other treatments have stopped working.
  • When deciding whether to try a new treatment, the risks and side effects should always be considered.
  • At some point it might become very unlikely that trying another treatment will improve your health or help you live longer.
  • Whether or not you continue treatment, palliative care can ease symptoms and side effects.
  • At the end of life, hospice care focuses on your quality of life and helping you manage your symptoms.

Deciding whether to continue cancer treatment

If you have cancer that keeps growing or comes back after one kind of treatment, it’s possible that another treatment might still help shrink the cancer, or at least keep it in check enough to help you live longer and feel better. Clinical trials also might offer chances to try newer treatments that could be helpful.

But when a person has tried many different treatments and the cancer is still growing, even newer treatments might no longer be helpful. If this happens, it’s important to weigh the possible limited benefits of trying a new treatment against the possible downsides, including treatment side effects. Everyone has their own way of looking at this.

This is likely to be the hardest part of your battle with cancer – when you have been through many treatments and nothing’s working anymore. Your doctor might offer you other treatment options, but at some point you may need to consider that further treatment is not likely to improve your health or change your outcome or survival. At the same time, it might have side effects that could affect your quality of life.

If you want to continue to get treatment for as long as you can, it’s important to think about the odds of further treatment having some benefit (and what this benefit might be), compared to the possible risks and side effects.

Your doctor can estimate how likely it is the cancer will respond to treatment you are considering. For instance, the doctor might say that more treatment might have about a 1 in 100 chance of working. Some people are still tempted to try this. But it’s important to have realistic expectations if you do choose this plan.

Getting help for pain and other symptoms

Whether or not you’re getting treatment, it’s important that you feel as good as you can. Be sure to ask about and get treatment for any symptoms you might have, such as nausea or pain. This type of treatment is called palliative or supportive care.

Palliative care helps relieve symptoms, but it’s not expected to cure the disease. It can be given along with cancer treatment, or can even be cancer treatment. The difference is its purpose – the main goal of palliative care is to improve your quality of life, or help you feel as good as you can for as long as you can. Sometimes this means using drugs to help with symptoms like pain or nausea. Sometimes, the treatments used to control your symptoms are the same as those used to treat cancer. For instance, if a large tumor is causing pain, radiation or chemo might be used to try to shrink it to help relieve the pain. But this is not the same as treatment to try to cure the cancer.

Getting help through hospice care

At some point, you may benefit from hospice care. This is special care that treats the person rather than the disease; it focuses on the quality of your life rather than its length. Most of the time, it is given at home. Your cancer may be causing problems that need to be managed, and hospice focuses on your comfort. While getting hospice care often means the end of treatments such as chemo and radiation, it doesn’t mean you can’t have treatment for the problems caused by your cancer or other health conditions. In hospice the focus of your care is on living life as fully as possible and feeling as well as you can at this difficult time. You can learn more about hospice in Hospice Care.

Staying hopeful

Your hope for a cure may not be as bright, but there is still hope for good times with family and friends – times that are filled with happiness and meaning. Pausing at this time in your cancer treatment gives you a chance to refocus on the most important things in your life. Now is the time to do some things you’ve always wanted to do and to stop doing things you no longer want to do. Though the cancer may be beyond your control, there are still choices you can make.

To learn more

You can learn more about the changes that occur when curative treatment stops working, and about planning ahead for yourself and your family, in Advanced Directives and Nearing the End of Life.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master’s-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Last Medical Review: February 5, 2016 Last Revised: May 19, 2016

American Cancer Society medical information is copyrighted material. For reprint requests, please contact permissionrequest@cancer.org.