Treatments for cancer
Cancer can be treated by surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, immunotherapy or other methods. The choice of therapy depends upon the location and grade of the tumor and the stage of the disease.
If the tumor is localized, surgery is often the preferred treatment. Example procedures include mastectomy for breast cancer and prostatectomy for prostate cancer. The goal of the surgery can be either the removal of only the tumor, or the entire organ. Since a single cancer cell can grow into a sizeable tumor, removing only the tumor leads to a greater chance of recurrence. A margin of healthy tissue is often resected to make sure all cancerous tissue is removed.
In addition to removal of the primary tumor, surgery is often necessary for staging, e.g. determining the extent of the disease and whether there has been metastasis to regional lymph nodes. Staging determines the prognosis and the need for adjuvant therapy.
Chemotherapy is the treatment of cancer with drugs ("anticancer drugs") that can destroy cancer cells. It interferes with cell division in various possible ways, e.g. with the duplication of DNA or the separation of newly formed chromosomes. Most forms of chemotherapy target all rapidly dividing cells and are not specific for cancer cells. Hence, chemotherapy has the potential to harm healthy tissue, especially those tissues that have a high replacement rate (e.g. intestinal lining). These cells usually repair themselves after chemotherapy.
Because some drugs work better together than alone, two or more drugs are often given at the same time. This is called combination chemotherapy; most chemotherapy regimens are given in a combination.
Radiation therapy (also called radiotherapy, X-ray therapy, or irradiation) is the use of a certain type of energy (called ionizing radiation) to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. Radiation therapy injures or destroys cells in the area being treated (the "target tissue") by damaging their genetic material, making it impossible for these cells to continue to grow and divide. Although radiation damages both cancer cells and normal cells, most normal cells can recover from the effects of radiation and function properly. The goal of radiation therapy is to damage as many cancer cells as possible, while limiting harm to nearby healthy tissue.
Radiation therapy may be used to treat almost every type of solid tumor, including cancers of the brain, breast, cervix, larynx, lung, pancreas, prostate, skin, spine, stomach, uterus, or soft tissue sarcomas. Radiation can also be used to treat leukemia and lymphoma (cancers of the blood-forming cells and lymphatic system, respectively). Radiation dose to each site depends on a number of factors, including the type of cancer and whether there are tissues and organs nearby that may be damaged by radiation.
Immunotherapy is the use of the immune system against tumors. These are used in various forms of cancer, such as breast cancer (herceptin) but also in leukemia (gemtuzumab ozogamicin). The agents are antibodies directed against proteins that are characteristic to the cells of the cancer in question, or cytokines that modulate the immune system's response.
Clinical trials, also called research studies, test new treatments in people with cancer. The goal of this research is to find better ways to treat cancer and help cancer patients. Clinical trials test many types of treatment such as new drugs, new approaches to surgery or radiation therapy, new combinations of treatments, or new methods such as gene therapy.
A clinical trial is one of the final stages of a long and careful cancer research process. The search for new treatments begins in the laboratory, where scientists first develop and test new ideas. If an approach seems promising, the next step may be testing a treatment in animals to see how it affects cancer in a living being and whether it has harmful effects. Of course, treatments that work well in the lab or in animals do not always work well in people. Studies are done with cancer patients to find out whether promising treatments are safe and effective.
The patients who take part may be helped personally by the treatment(s) they receive. They get up-to-date care from cancer experts, and they receive either a new treatment being tested or the best available standard treatment for their cancer. Of course, there is no guarantee that a new treatment being tested or a standard treatment will produce good results. New treatments also may have unknown risks, but if a new treatment proves effective or more effective than standard treatment, study patients who receive it may be among the first to benefit.
Experimental cancer treatments
There are several experimental treatments under research, including:
Complementary and alternative medicine
Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is a group of diverse medical and health care systems, practices, and products that are not presently considered to be part of conventional medicine. Many patients experience benefit from these modalities, but many have not been scientifically proven. Almost all physicians would recommend against using these modalities as a sole treatment for potentially fatal conditions such as cancer. In the United States, current trials are underway to test the following:
Cancer prevention is defined as the reduction of cancer mortality via reduction in the incidence of cancer. This can be accomplished by avoiding a carcinogen or altering its metabolism; pursuing lifestyle or dietary practices that modify cancer-causing factors or genetic predispositions; and/or medical intervention (chemoprevention) to successfully treat preneoplastic lesions.
Much of the promise for cancer prevention comes from observational epidemiologic studies that show associations between modifiable life style factors or environmental exposures and specific cancers. Evidence is now emerging from randomized controlled trials designed to test whether interventions suggested by the epidemiologic studies, as well as leads based on laboratory research, result in reduced cancer incidence and mortality.
Additional examples of modifiable cancer risk factors include alcohol consumption (associated with increased risk of oral, esophageal, breast, and other cancers), physical inactivity (associated with increased risk of colon, breast, and possibly other cancers), and being overweight (associated with colon, breast, endometrial, and possibly other cancers). Based on epidemiologic evidence, it is now thought that avoiding excessive alcohol consumption, being physically active, and maintaining recommended body weight, may all contribute to reductions in risk of certain cancers; however, compared with tobacco exposure, the magnitude of effect is modest or small and the strength of evidence is often weaker. Other lifestyle and environmental factors known to affect cancer risk (either beneficially or detrimentally) include certain sexual and reproductive practices, the use of exogenous estrogens, exposure to ionizing radiation and ultraviolet radiation, certain occupational and chemical exposures, and infectious agents.
Food and nutrient intake have been examined in relation to many types of cancer. Fruit and vegetable consumption have generally been found in epidemiologic studies to be associated with reduced risk for a number of different cancers; however, it is not currently known which specific components of fruits and vegetables are responsible for the observed associations or if healthy diets are simply associated with other beneficial interventions, e.g., exercise. Contrary to expectation, randomized trials found no benefit of beta-carotene supplementation in reducing lung cancer incidence and mortality; risk of lung cancer was statistically significantly increased in smokers in the beta-carotene arms of 2 of the trials. Similarly, randomized controlled trials have found no reduction in risk of subsequent adenomatous polyps of the colon in individuals who have had polyps resected taking dietary fiber supplements compared with those receiving much lower amounts of supplemental wheat bran fiber. On the other hand, there is evidence from at least 1 randomized controlled trial that calcium supplementation does modestly reduce risk of adenoma recurrence. The "chemoprevention database" gives results of all published randomized controlled trials. Consumption of red meat and inadequate folic acid intake have also been associated with increased risk of colon cancer. A large randomized trial is currently underway to investigate whether men taking daily selenium or vitamin E or both experience a reduced incidence of prostate cancer in comparison to men taking placebo pills.
Daily use of tamoxifen, a selective estrogen receptor modulator, for up to 5 years, has been demonstrated to reduce the risk of developing breast cancer in high-risk women by about 50%. Cis-retinoic acid also has been shown to reduce risk of second primary tumors among patients with primary head and neck cancer. Finasteride, a 5-alpha reductase inhibitor, has been shown to lower the risk of prostate cancer. Other examples of drugs that show promise for chemoprevention include COX-2 inhibitors (which inhibit a cyclooxygenase enzyme involved in the synthesis of proinflammatory prostaglandins).
Considerable research effort is now devoted to the development of vaccines (to prevent infection by oncogenic infectious agents, as well as to mount an immune response against cancer-specific epitopes) and to potential venues for gene therapy for individuals with genetic mutations or polymorphisms that put them at high risk of cancer. Meanwhile, genetic testing for high-risk individuals, with enhanced surveillance or prophylactic surgery for those who test positive, is already available for certain types of cancer, including breast and colon cancer.
Coping with cancer
There are many local organizations that offer a variety of practical and support services to people with cancer. Support can take the form of support groups, counseling, advice, financial assistance, transportation to and from treatment, or information about cancer. Neighborhood organizations, local health care providers, or area hospitals are a good place to start looking.
While some people are reluctant to seek counseling, studies show that having someone to talk to reduces stress and helps people both mentally and physically. Counseling can also provide emotional support to cancer patients and help them better understand their illness. Different types of counseling include individual, group, family, self-help (sometimes called peer counseling), bereavement, patient-to-patient, and sexuality.
Many governmental and charitable organizations have been established to help patients cope with cancer. These organizations often are involved in cancer prevention, cancer treatment, and cancer research. Examples include: American Cancer Society, BC Cancer Agency, Cancer Research UK, Canadian Cancer Society, International Agency for Research on Cancer, National Cancer Institute (US), and Yorkshire Cancer Research.
Cancer has a reputation for being a deadly disease. While this certainly applies to certain particular types, this is otherwise a generalization. Some types of cancer have a prognosis that is substantially better than nonmalignant diseases such as heart failure and stroke. Nonetheless, in the late 1990's cancer overtook heart disease as the leading cause of death in the United KingdomTemplate:Fn, and in 2002 the same happened in the United StatesTemplate:Fn.
Progessive and disseminated malignant disease has a substantial impact on a cancer patient's quality of life, and many cancer treatments (such as chemotherapy) may have severe side-effects. In the advanced stages of cancer, many patients need extensive care, affecting family members and friends. Palliative care solutions may include permanent or "respite" hospice nursing.