How is advanced cancer treated?

This information represents the views of the doctors and nurses serving on the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Information Database Editorial Board. These views are based on their interpretation of studies published in medical journals, as well as their own professional experience.
The treatment information in this document is not official policy of the Society and is not intended as medical advice to replace the expertise and judgment of your cancer care team. It’s intended to help you and your family make informed decisions, together with your doctor.
Your doctor may have reasons for suggesting a treatment plan different from these general treatment options. Don’t hesitate to ask him or her questions about your treatment options.

General treatment information

Advanced cancer cannot be cured, but it can often be treated. The physical symptoms it causes can almost always be managed. At any stage of cancer, the goal of treatment should be clear to both you and your loved ones. You should know if the goal is to cure the cancer, to slow its growth and help you live longer, or to relieve symptoms. This can sometimes be confusing because some treatments used to cure cancer are also used to slow its growth or relieve symptoms.

Some people believe that nothing more can be done if the cancer cannot be cured, so they stop all treatment. But radiation, chemotherapy (and other drugs), surgery, and other treatments can often slow cancer growth and help control symptoms. And relieving symptoms like pain, blocked bowels, upset stomach, and vomiting can help you feel better. Something can almost always be done to help maintain or improve your quality of life.

You have the right to be the decision-maker in planning your treatment. The goal of any cancer care is to give you the best possible quality of life. You want to feel as good as possible for as long as possible. This is a very personal issue. You should tell your cancer care team what’s important to you. Tell them what you want to be able to continue to do.

Some people might want to continue cancer treatments as long as there’s a chance they may help. Others might decide that the side effects or other burdens of aggressive cancer treatments outweigh the possible benefits, so they may no longer want this type of treatment. This may be hard for some of your loved ones to accept, but you have the right to make this decision. Still, it often helps to include your loved ones in these difficult choices. Either way, you should make the decisions that are best and most realistic for you and your situation.

Treatment choices for advanced cancer depend on where the cancer started and how much it has spread. As a general rule, cancer that has spread will need systemic therapy such as chemotherapy or hormone therapy. Systemic therapy is treatment that is taken by mouth or injected into the blood to reach cancer cells throughout the entire body. Local therapies such as surgery or radiation therapy, which only affect a certain part of the body, might also be needed to help prevent or relieve certain symptoms.

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 7, 2014 Last Revised: March 6, 2014

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