Treatment for advanced cancer

The aim of treatment for advanced cancer is to control the cancer for as long as possible. Controlling the cancer might mean shrinking the size of the cancer or stopping it growing for a while. In some cases, this may be months or years. If treatment is no longer controlling the cancer, the aim of treatment is to relieve symptoms.

New drugs are constantly becoming available, so if your current treatment stops working or you are finding it hard to cope with the side effects, ask your doctor about other options. Also, ask if you are eligible to join a clinical trial.

Treatment choices for advanced cancer will depend on where the cancer started and how much it has spread.

  • Cancer that has spread – usually needs systemic treatment. This means treatment is taken by mouth or injected into the blood to reach cancer cells throughout the body. Examples include chemotherapy, immunotherapy or hormone therapy.
  • Relieving some symptoms – usually treatments that affects only a certain part of the body are used. Examples include surgery or radiotherapy. Palliative treatment can also help to maintain or improve quality of life.

A range of health professionals will work as a multidisciplinary team to treat you. 

Learn more about these advanced cancer treatments:


To find out more about the treatments available for advanced cancer, call Cancer Council 13 11 20 and ask for free booklets on chemotherapy, surgery, radiotherapy or palliative Care, or download copies from this page.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is the most commonly used treatment when cancer has spread. The drugs kill cancer cells or slow their growth. There are many types of chemotherapy drugs, which are often used in different combinations and strengths.

Treatment is usually given over a few hours or days, followed by a rest period of 2–3 weeks. Most people have several cycles of treatment.

The chemotherapy drugs are usually given by injecting the drugs into a vein (intravenously), but can also be taken as tablets or capsules (orally). Ask your doctor which combination of drugs is best for you, and how long your treatment will last.

Side effects Some chemotherapy drugs cause nausea, depression, tiredness and hair loss. Many of these are temporary and can be prevented or reduced.

Different types of chemotherapy have different side effects – for instance, not all of them cause hair loss.


Surgery

Surgery can remove tumours from affected areas, such as the bowel or lymph nodes. It can also relieve discomfort caused by tumours that obstruct organs or cause bleeding, such as unblocking the bile duct to relieve jaundice in pancreatic cancer.

Some organs release hormones that stimulate tumour growth, so your doctor might suggest surgery on these – for example, removing the testicles will reduce testosterone levels and can slow the growth of prostate cancer.


Radiotherapy

Also known as radiation therapy, radiotherapy uses radiation, such as x-rays, to kill cancer cells or injure them so they cannot multiply. Radiotherapy can be precisely targeted at cancer sites in your body. Treatment is carefully planned to have the greatest effect on the cancer cells and to limit damage to the surrounding healthy body tissues.

Radiotherapy can shrink tumours or stop them from spreading further. It can also relieve some symptoms, such as pain from secondary cancer in the bones. External beam radiotherapy or internal radiotherapy (brachytherapy) may be offered.

Side effects Common side effects from radiotherapy include fatigue, skin problems or loss of appetite. These may be temporary or longer-lasting.


Hormone therapy

Cancer that grows in response to hormones can often be slowed by taking drugs to suppress the body’s production of the hormone. If you have prostate, breast or uterine cancer, you may be offered hormone therapy. This treatment may cause some side effects.

Side effects For women, certain hormone drugs will cause menopausal symptoms, regardless of age. If you have been through menopause, hormone drugs called aromatase inhibitors may be used and these may cause thinning of the bones (osteoporosis) and vaginal dryness. For men, hormone drugs can produce hot flushes.


Targeted therapy

Targeted therapy may be used instead of, or together with, chemotherapy. This treatment uses drugs that work in a different way to chemotherapy drugs. While chemotherapy affects all rapidly dividing cells and works by killing cancerous cells (cytotoxic), targeted therapy affects specific molecules within cells and often works by blocking cell growth (cytostatic).

Not all cancers respond to targeted therapy, and the drugs are sometimes hard to access because they are expensive, not yet developed for all types of cancers, and sometimes available only in clinical trials.

Side effects These vary depending on the targeted therapy used, but may include fevers, allergic reactions, rashes, diarrhoea, blood-clotting problems, and blood pressure changes.


Immunotherapy

This is the use of drugs to alter the immune system’s response. New immunotherapy drugs are being rapidly developed, and several of these are approved for the treatment of some cancers.

These new drugs enable the immune system to bypass ‘checkpoints’ set up by the cancer that block the immune system.

Side effects The side effects of immunotherapy drugs are different to chemotherapy. If the drugs inflame organs, it may cause symptoms, for example, in the lungs (shortness of breath), bowel (diarrhoea) or thyroid gland (abnormal thyroid hormone levels).


Palliative care

Palliative care allows people with advanced cancer to maintain their quality of life. It also provides support to families and carers.

Many people think that palliative care is just for people who are dying, but it is appropriate at any stage of advanced cancer. Some people live comfortably for months or years after their diagnosis of advanced cancer, and they can be supported by palliative care services throughout this time.

The role of palliative care is to:

  • help you achieve a good quality of life for as long as possible
  • make sure your physical, practical, emotional and spiritual needs are catered for
  • help you feel in control of your situation and make decisions about your treatment and ongoing care
  • make the time you have as valuable as it can be for you and your family.

Your palliative care may be coordinated by your GP or community nurse or by the specialist palliative care team in your area. These different professionals work together to give you relief from pain and other symptoms of cancer. They will also try to help you live your life as fully as possible.

Contacting the palliative care team early in your illness means that you can find out what the different team members do and see which services might be useful now or in the future. This will vary according to how you feel, what problems you have, and how your carers are managing.

If you are not linked in with a palliative care service and would like to be, speak to your doctor or nurse.

For more information about what palliative care is and how it helps, visit Palliative Care Australia. You can also use the directory on this website to find a palliative care service in your local area.

     − Kate

Read more about palliative care for advanced cancer

Rehabilitation

It is frustrating to find that cancer can limit your activities.

Rehabilitation is a way of improving your quality of life between or after treatments. It may involve restoring physical functioning with the use of physiotherapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy or artificial body parts (prostheses). It can also include emotional support, such as counselling.

Returning to work is another form of rehabilitation. You may find you need to start back at work with reduced hours. If you can no longer work, or choose not to, you may need something to do that helps you feel involved in life and connected with people.

For most people, rehabilitation is organised through their treatment centre. If you have been treated in a private hospital, ask your doctor about the availability of these services. Your GP can also organise rehabilitation for you.

For more information on the availability of rehabilitation services in your area, contact Cancer Council 13 11 20.


This information was last reviewed in December 2016
View who reviewed this content
View our editorial policy

Support services

Coping with cancer?
Speak to a health professional or to someone who has been there, or find a support group or forum

Need legal and financial assistance?
Pro bono services, financial and legal assistance, and no interest loans

Cancer information

What is cancer?
How cancer starts and spreads

Dealing with the diagnosis
Common reactions to a cancer diagnosis and how to find hope

View our publications
Guides and fact sheets for people with cancer, their families and friends

SHARE
TOP BACK TO TOP