Mainstream medicine is the most common and the most effective form of conventional cancer treatment. It includes surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and biotherapy. Understanding these different approaches is critical, so you can make informed decisions.
Surgery is usually the first course of action since it is clean, direct and offers the best chance of a cure.
- It aims to physically cut away all the tumour cells and as few of the healthy tissue cells as possible, with the hope that this action will minimize chances of malignant cells remaining in the body and that the affected organ and related body systems will return to their normal functioning.
- Surgery works best with early diagnosis, and specially with localized tumours that spread slowly. Obviously, surgery may not be the ideal option for cancer treatment in certain types of cancers, notably to do with the blood, like leukemia or lymphoma.
Chemotherapy is another popular cancer treatment. It aims to inhibit and hopefully, reverse the uncontrolled growth of cells, using drugs.
- It is usually a follow-up to surgery. But in some cases, doctors may use it prior to surgery to shrink the size of the tumour.
- Chemotherapy carries a large margin of error because, beyond a point, the therapeutic drugs cannot distinguish between healthy and cancerous cells. Careful monitoring is a must.
- Chemotherapy can also have an adverse impact on the bone marrow, hair, skin, digestive tract and the immune system. The side effects of the medical cancer treatments include fatigue, nausea, poor appetite, metallic taste, infections, bruising, bleeding, anaemia and hair loss.
Recent scientific advances have led to new cancer treatment options that can target tumour cells more precisely. Doctors now have access to better genetic understanding, more sensitive diagnostics, tailored drug formulations and calibrated dosages to zero-in on the specific tumour cells. So they can maximise the therapeutic effect and minimise side effects.
Radiotherapy aims to inhibit uncontrolled cell growth using gamma rays (at approximately 10,000 times the intensity of normal X-rays).
- It allows for targeted and controlled interventions, which is most effective for localized cancers.
- Radiotherapy has similar side effects to another cancer treatment, chemotherapy. Additionally, patients who take radiotherapy often experience severe burning of surface and internal tissues, and this can be very painful.
Biotherapy is an emerging science, which involves a range of new techniques and approaches that introduce bio-chemicals such as antibodies, interferons and interleukins into the bloodstream.
- These biochemicals stimulate the immune system’s own anti-cancer properties and promote the self-repair of damaged genes.
- Research and clinical trials to understand this cancer treatment are currently underway; the findings are promising but not yet conclusive.
Cancer treatment steps
- Surgery is usually the first line of cancer treatment. If surgery is successful and the tumour doesn’t recur, the patient is said to be in ‘remission’. Doctors then monitor the patient regularly though blood tests, scans etc.
- If the patient stays in remission for five years, current medical norms consider the patient as ‘cured’. The longer the remission period, the lower the chances of a recurrence. For example, a person who has been in remission for five years has the same probability of getting cancer as anyone else.
2. Chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy
- Depending on the nature and location of the tumour, doctors usually supplement surgery with chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy. The aim is to reverse or arrest tumour growth.
- However, these cancer treatment approaches may be unsuccessful, partly successful, or the cancer may recur. Then the aim is to prevent the cancer from spreading to other organs, so the patient can be reasonably functional as long as possible.
3. Combining cancer treatment options
- If one method of cancer treatment doesn’t work, doctors try various options and combinations in the hope that something will prove to be effective.
- For example, in some cases, doctors use chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy prior to surgery, to shrink the tumour.
- In others, they follow surgery, with the intention of mopping up any remaining tumour cells. If the tumour is solid and localized, surgery plus radiotherapy may be appropriate, whereas in cases of blood or lymph cancers, chemotherapy may be the only treatment possible.
- With all these variables and options, cancer treatment is often a hit-and-miss game; the oncologists skill lies in ascertaining the exact treatment methods, drugs and dosages for a particular type of cancer in a particular individual. Different people and their cancers respond differently (or don’t respond) to a particular regimen.
4. ‘Maintenance’ mode
- If the tumour shrinks or stops growing, the cancer treatment is kept in ‘maintenance’ mode to contain the tumour and its spread to other parts of the body. However, if the tumour continues to grow and/or spread, then surgery may be done again and the chemotherapy/radiotherapy treatments reapplied, often more aggressively. This process can take weeks and months, sometimes even years.
- If, after trying all possible cancer treatment combinations, the tumour doesn’t respond, aggressive interventions may be discontinued and the focus then shifts to keeping the patient functional, comfortable and free of pain till the end of life. This is called palliative care.
The evidence is clear. Prevention is your best defense against cancer. If it does occur, then an early diagnosis and successful surgical removal is the next best option. Once cancer takes hold, you enter the chemotherapy-radiotherapy-biotherapy spectrum. Now if this doesn’t work, then the only option is palliative care. It can be a very slippery slope indeed!
- What questions do you need to ask your doctor to understand what is the best treatment regime, specific to your condition? Please make a suitable list.
- What steps can you take, to minimise and cope with the possible side-effects or after-effects of conventional cancer treatment?
- How can you be an active participant – rather than a passive recipient – of your cancer treatment?
More from this series
|Title||About the article|
|Part 1: The Cell That Forgot To Die||Talking openly about cancer is difficult because the cancer experience forces us to confront our own mortality or at least our vulnerability, and that is not something we share so easily.|
|Part 2: Staging||Staging is a method of evaluating the progress of cancer in a patient. By examining the tumor and the extent to which it has spread to other parts of the body, doctors know how far along the cancer is and based on this, decide on the best course of treatment.|
|Part 3: What Causes Cancer||While much is known about the physical process of cancer, it is astonishing how little we know about its physicalcauses. Available research shows that there are two (physical) causes of cancer – tendencies and triggers.|
|Part 4: Medical Treatments||Mainstream (allopathic) cancer treatment includes surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and biotherapy.|