There are three primary methods for treating cancer. These are surgery, chemotherapy (“chemo” for short) & radiation. Sometimes these methods may be combined. Depending on the type of cancer, additional treatment options might include bone marrow transplant, hormone therapy, molecular-targeted therapy, clinical trials & unconventional methods.
Surgery – Tumors may be removed or shrunk through surgery (often followed by chemo &/or radiation to treat any cells that may have spread). This surgery is localized to the tumor site & might be done with the old-fashioned surgical knife. However, there are also less extensive surgeries such as sentinel node biopsy, minimally invasive (like laparoscopy or thoracoscopy) & organ-preserving (e.g. lumpectomy). Newer approaches to destroy tumor tissue include focused sound waves (i.e. ultrasound), cold (cryotherapy), radiowaves (radiofrequency ablation) & light (phototherapy).
Chemotherapy – A drug or combination of drugs primarily administered orally, through injection or through a vein (via a catheter such as a PICC line or a port (i.e. a device placed under your skin on the chest). Chemo is a systemic treatment, meaning it affects the whole body. It targets fast-growing cells which include not only cancer cells but other fast-growing cells like skin, hair, bone marrow (including white or red blood cells & platelets) & cells that line your digestive tract (such as stomach & mouth). Fortunately, the side effects from damage to healthy cells (such as nausea or diarrhea) can often be managed during treatment & other side effects (such as hair loss, dry skin or skin rash) usually go away.
Radiation – High-energy radiation is delivered to the tumor(s) by a machine via an external beam (i.e. X-Ray or gamma ray) or internally (via radioactive material placed in the body near the tumor or via systemic administration called brachytherapy). The purpose of radiation is to shrink or kill the cancer cells by damaging their DNA. Unfortunately, normal cells can also be damaged leading to long-term effects such as fibrosis & lymphedema. However, doctors have an idea of how much radiation normal tissue can receive & take this into consideration when planning your treatment course.
Coleman, Norman, MD (2006). Understanding Cancer, p. 85-106. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press.