Different treatments for cancer are used alone or in combination. Most cancers are treated with surgery, chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy (also known as radiotherapy). Other treatments, such as hormone therapy, immunotherapy and targeted therapies, can also be used for some types of cancer.
The aim of most cancer treatment is to achieve remission, which is when the signs and symptoms of cancer reduce or are no longer detected during routine tests.
When remission is unlikely, cancer treatment can help to relieve symptoms, help you feel as comfortable as possible, and may allow you to live longer. This is called palliative treatment.
This page includes general information about cancer treatments. For specific details about how different types of cancer are treated, visit a cancer type page.
Types of cancer treatment
- Chemotherapy: The use of anti-cancer drugs to treat cancer by killing cancer cells or slowing their growth.
- Radiation therapy: The use of radiation, such as x-rays, gamma rays, electron beams or protons, to kill cancer cells or injure them so they cannot grow or multiply. Also called radiotherapy.
- Surgery: An operation by a surgeon to remove or repair a part of the body affected by cancer.
- Hormone therapy: Treatment that blocks the body’s natural hormones, which sometimes help cancer cells grow. It is used when the cancer is growing in response to hormones. Also called endocrine therapy.
- Immunotherapy: The prevention or treatment of disease using substances that alter the immune system’s response.
- Targeted therapy: Treatment that attacks specific particles (molecules) within cells that allow cancer to grow. Some immunotherapy and hormone therapy drugs are targeted therapies.
Making treatment decisions
Before recommending particular cancer treatments, your doctors will consider several factors. These include:
- the type of cancer you have
- where it began
- whether it has spread to other parts of your body
- your general health
- your age
- what treatments are currently available
- your preferences.
Sometimes it is difficult to decide on the type of treatment to have. You may feel that everything is happening too fast. Check with your doctor how soon your treatment should start, and take as much time as you can before making a decision.
Understanding the disease, the available treatments and possible side effects can help you weigh up the pros and cons of different treatments and make a well-informed decision that’s based on your personal values. You may also want to discuss the options with your doctor, friends and family.
You have the right to accept or refuse any treatment offered. Some people with more advanced cancer choose treatment even if it offers only a small benefit for a short period of time. Others want to make sure the benefits outweigh the side effects so that they have the best possible quality of life.
Taking part in a clinical trial
Your doctor or nurse may suggest you take part in a clinical trial. Doctors run clinical trials to test new or modified treatments and ways of diagnosing disease to see if they are better than current methods. For example, if you join a randomised trial for a new treatment, you will be chosen at random to receive either the best existing treatment or the modified new treatment.
Over the years, trials have improved treatments and led to better outcomes for people diagnosed with cancer.