How is cancer treated?

Your treatment will depend on the type of cancer you have, where it began and whether is has spread to other parts of your body. It will also depend on such things as your general health and the type of treatment you choose.

Most cancers are treated by surgery, radiotherapy and/or chemotherapy (drug treatment). Often, more than one of these treatments are used. Other treatments that can work with some cancers are immunotherapy and hormone therapy.

What is radiotherapy?

Radiotherapy is a form of treatment that can control the growht of many types of cancer. Radiotherapy is the use of radiation to kill or injure cancer cells so they cannot keep growing. Radiotherapy may be used before surgery (preoperative radiotherapy), or after surgery (postoperative radiotherapy), to destroy cancer cells that cannot be removed surgically. In some cases, radiotherapy is used in combination with chemotherapy to treat the cancer.

Radiotherapy aims

  • To cure – many cancers can be completely cured by radiotherapy on its own or when combined with other treatments.
  • As a temporary control – when it is not possible to cure a cancer, radiotherapy may be used to keep the cancer under control for some time by making it smaller or stopping it from spreading.
  • For symptom relief – radiotherapy is often able to relieve distressing cancer symptoms, such as pain, so you feel as well as possible.
  • As adjuvant therapy – when radiotherapy is used with another treatment, such as surgery, to improve the chances of cure, it is called adjuvant radiotherapy.

For further information, please download our Understanding Radiotherapy (pdf, 1.27 mb) booklet.

What is chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to treat cancer. It works by destroying or slowing the growth of cancer cells. Chemotherapy mainly affects fast-growing cells, like cancer cells. There are many different types of chemotherapy drugs. Usually, people have several at the same time, but sometimes people have only one drug. Your oncologist will discuss your treatment options with you.

The Understanding Chemotherapy booklet, (pdf, 1.05 mb) provides explanations and understanding to help dispel some of your concerns and fears related to chemotherapy. This booklet explains the use of chemotherapy, how it is given, the possible side effects and how to manage them, special issues, diet and supportive care. It is a 32 page booklet designed as a guide for people with cancer, their family and friends.

What other types of cancer treatment are there?

  • Hormone therapy – reduces the hormones that cause some cancer cells to grow.
  • Immunotherapy – helps the body’s immune system to fight cancer cells.
  • Adjuvant therapy – is when a treatment used to assist your main treatment and is used in addition to the main treatment.

People often have more than one type of treatment, one after the other, or together. This is called multi-modality treatment. Many cancers can be cured using these treatments, either alone or in combination. When a cure is unlikely, chemotherapy, radiotherapy or other treatments can relieve symptoms and help you feel as well as possible often for long periods of time. It is important to talk with your oncologist, doctor or nurse about any concerns you have before, during and after treatment.