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Cancer treatments

11-minute read

Key facts

  • The cancer treatment or combination of treatments you receive will depend on the type of cancer you have, if it has spread, your general health and your preferences.
  • Cancer treatments that involve medicines are chemotherapy, immunotherapy, hormone therapy and targeted therapy.
  • Surgery, ablation and radiotherapy are other forms of cancer treatments.
  • You may choose to use complementary therapies alongside your cancer treatment to help you manage side effects and improve your quality of life.
  • Clinical trials are an important as they help doctors and researchers develop new cancer treatments.

What kinds of cancer treatment are available?

There are many types of cancer treatments and they all work differently. Also, every case of cancer is different. If you have cancer, you will have your own tailored treatment plan.

Your doctor may prescribe a combination of treatments. The main types of cancer treatment used in Australia include:

Your doctor may recommend treatments based on many factors, including:

  • the type of cancer
  • the stage of cancer
  • your age
  • your general health
  • your own preferences

Your doctor will discuss the benefits and disadvantages of possible treatments with you before you decide on a treatment plan. Your treatment plan may also change based on how your cancer responds to the treatment and how well you cope with any side effects.

Your doctor will be able to tell you how soon treatment should start. You can take as much time as you need to discuss the options with your doctor, family and friends before making a decision. You have the right to refuse any treatment you do not wish to have, and to change your mind at any stage during treatment.

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Can surgery be used for cancer?

Surgery involves a specialist doctor, called a surgeon, performing an operation to remove or repair part of your body. Surgery for cancer usually involves partial or complete removal of a cancerous tumour (sometimes referred to as a ‘lesion’ or a 'lump').

For some early-stage cancers, surgery may be the only treatment you need. In more advanced cases, you may need other treatments after surgery to destroy any remaining cancer cells.

Other cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy may be used before your surgery to shrink a tumour. Called 'neoadjuvant therapy', this can make it easier for surgeons to remove the tumour.

What is chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy is a group of strong medicines often used to treat cancer. Chemotherapy can destroy or slow the growth of cells that grow quickly — including cancer cells. When speaking to doctors or nurses you may hear it referred to as ‘chemo’.

What is radiotherapy?

Radiotherapy, also known as radiation therapy, is a treatment that uses beams of radiation to kill or damage cancer cells so they can't grow or spread. Different forms of radiotherapy use different kinds of radiation including x-rays, gamma rays and proton beams.

Radiotherapy is referred to as localised cancer treatment, because it targets the area affected by cancer. Your medical team will be careful to minimise any damage to your healthy, cancer-free cells and the organs around the cancer.

What is immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy is a treatment that uses medicines that help your own immune system fight off cancer cells. Some cancers prevent your immune system from recognising cancer cells.

Some types of immunotherapy are designed to stop cancers from doing this, allowing your immune system to ‘see’ and kill the cancer cells.

Immunotherapy can be very effective at treating certain types of cancer, such as melanoma, but it may not work for everyone. Side effects of immunotherapy will depend on the medicine used, but often include inflammation in different parts of the body such as the heart, lungs, and thyroid. When inflammation happens in other areas of the body, it can cause dry eyes, skin rashes, abdominal pain and diarrhoea.

What is hormone therapy?

Some cancers grow in response to certain hormones produced naturally by your body. Examples include oestrogen-dependent breast cancer or testosterone-dependent prostate cancer.

Hormone therapy uses medicines to slow or block the effects of the hormones. The cancer is then exposed to less of these hormones and may grow more slowly.

Hormone therapy may be used with other cancer treatments — for example, to shrink a tumour before surgery, or after a different treatment to reduce the chance of the cancer recurring.

After your cancer has been biopsied (a sample removed and viewed under a microscope), it may be tested for hormone receptors. If it has these hormone receptors, your doctor may consider hormone therapy.

What is targeted therapy?

Targeted therapy uses medicines to attack specific features (called 'molecular targets') found in cancer cells. The benefit of targeted therapy is that if the cancer therapy can identify and attack only cancer cells, there may be less damage to normal cells. Different types of targeted therapy are used in many types of cancers, with new types being developed all the time.

Targeted therapy is often used with other cancer treatments. It can also be used for months or even years to slow cancer growth or prevent cancer from recurring.

What is ablation?

Ablation is a procedure that destroys a cancerous tumour. Cancers may be destroyed (ablated) using one or more of these options:

  • chemicals
  • heat (thermal ablation)
  • cold (cryotherapy)
  • alcohol injection
  • electric current (radiofrequency ablation)

Ablations are usually guided by imaging. This means you might have a scan (ultrasound, x-ray, CT or MRI) before and/or during the procedure to help the doctor identify the exact location of the tumour.

During the procedure, a specialist doctor (known as an interventional radiologist) will insert a needle into the tumour and apply the chemical, heat, cold or current to destroy it.

Ablation is a minimally invasive procedure that may be used if surgery is considered too risky. It's also used as a palliative treatment.

Can alternative and complementary therapies treat cancer?

Evidence-based conventional treatments for cancer (listed above) have been thoroughly tested and are scientifically proven to be safe and effective in treating cancer.

Alternative therapies have not been scientifically proven to treat or cure cancer. They may cause harm to people who choose to use them instead of conventional treatments.

Complementary therapies are treatments that can be used alongside conventional cancer treatments. They can improve your wellbeing and may ease the side effects of treatments.

Some complementary therapies have scientific evidence to support their effectiveness in improving aspects of your wellbeing.

These may include:

  • relaxation exercises and meditation — may reduce muscle tension, anxiety and depression and improve quality of life
  • counselling — can reduce anxiety, depression and distress and improve quality of life
  • acupuncture — may improve pain, tingling, tiredness, hot flushes
  • aromatherapy — may improve pain, anxiety, sleep and quality of life
  • massage — can reduce stress, pain, anxiety, depression and tiredness after chemotherapy or surgery

Some complementary therapies may interfere with your cancer treatment and may not be suitable for all stages of treatment. Speak to your doctor before you start any new treatment to make sure it's safe for you.

What are clinical trials for cancer treatment?

Clinical trials are part of the process of developing new medical treatments. Participating in a clinical trial may give you the opportunity to be treated with new medicines or treatments. This helps new treatments to become available to people with cancer in the future.

New treatments must undergo many stages of testing before they are considered safe and effective. Clinical trials, conducted on humans, are an essential part of this testing.

All participants in a clinical trial must provide informed consent. This means that your health team will carefully explain all the potential benefits and disadvantages of the trial before you agree (consent) to participate.

Many clinical trials compare 2 groups of people with cancer. One group receives the standard treatment and the other receives the new treatment. In most cases, you won't be able to choose which treatment you receive.

If you are interested in participating in a clinical trial, speak to your doctor about your options.

Resources and support

Visit these organisations for more information on cancer treatments and support services:

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: November 2023

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