How is Cancer treated?Cancer is treated by following modalities-Surgery, Radiation or Chemotherapy. These modalities may be used either as a single modality or combination of more than one, for eg: Acute Myeloid Leukemia is treated mainly by Chemotherapy alone where as Breast Cancer very often requires combination of Surgery, radiation and Chemotherapy.
What is chemotherapy?Chemotherapy is drug treatment which is used to kill Cancer cells or stop them spreading. Sometimes Chemotherapy is used to treat non-Cancerous conditions but often the doses are lower and the side effects may be reduced. This section does not cover the use of Chemotherapy for conditions other than Cancer.
Different Cancer cells respond to different drugs, so not all Chemotherapy is the same.
Sometimes as many as eight different drugs is employed to get the best effect, and doctors are constantly trying out new combinations to improve treatment. Chemotherapy is often associated with debillitating side effects, but many types of modern Chemotherapy cause only mild problems.
How does it work?Chemotherapy, in its traditional sense, is a chemical which is poisonous to Cancer cells and kills them. This is called a cytotoxic chemical - one very early Chemotherapy was produced from mustard gas, which was used as chemical weaponry during the First World War. However, anything which is poisonous to Cancer cells may also be poisonous to the body's healthy cells, which it needs to survive.
What about side-effects?Because some Chemotherapy targets fast-growing, or fast-dividing cells, it is more likely to harm similar cells in the body. These include the cells in the hair follicles, which is why Cancer Treatment is often associated with hair loss, although hair does regrow once treatment has ended. Other fast-dividing cells can be found in the stomach and bowel lining, which leads to nausea and diarrhoea. There are, however, drugs which help control this, and timing meals to avoid having a full stomach when the drugs take effect can also help in some cases.
Other types of normal cell that can suffer are the blood cells. Red cells are important to carry oxygen to keep other cells alive. Other blood cells help stave off infection. As a result,Chemotherapy patients may be more prone to infections, and find them harder to fight off.
What is Radiotherapy?Treatment of Cancer using radiation is Radiotherapy where the Cancer cells are killed by ionizing radiation. Ionizing radiation - similar to x-rays - can penetrate tissue, and alter the part of the cell which regulates its growth and reproduction.
Normal cells can recover from this damage, while cancer cells cannot. There are two types of Radiotherapy - delivered from outside the body by a machine, and using radioactive implants placed inside the body.
Researchers are working to increase the effectiveness of Radiotherapy by targeting the beam of energy more precisely, and making the Cancer cells more sensitive to it.
firm evidence that cells could have spread further afield, then Chemotherapy may be the preferred option.
What form does the treatment take?If the Radiotherapy is delivered by a machine, then the patient will normally be given repeated treatments over a brief period. Although treatment timing varies depending on the type of Cancer, its location, size, and the dose chosen by the doctors, it is not unusual to be given treatments every day for a few weeks.
If the therapy involves inserting a radioactive implant near a Tumour, then a brief hospital stay is normally needed.
What are the side-effects?Although the treatment itself is painless at the time, the culmulative effect of many sessions does produce side effects. The radiation can produce a sunburn-like effect on the skin as it passes through. The extent of this depends on the number and intensity of treatments. There can be hair loss in the area being treated - which is usually temporary. The treatment can also leave the patient feeling fatigued and generally lethargic.
Are there any long-term health risks?Ionizing radiation produces changes within the genetic structure of the body's cells, and there is a small risk that an increased radiation dose leads to changes in healthy cells which can cause Cancer. However, the dose is lessening steadily as modern Radiotherapy equipment targets Tumours more precisely. The risks of medical radiation exposure are miniscule when compared to the risks to the patient's health of not having the treatment. Old-fashioned Radiotherapy equipment tends to give the patient a slightly higher dose, but the UK government is now investing in the latest machines.
What is the future of radiotherapy?Researchers are fine-tuning Radiotherapy to improve the outcomes for patients.
The main efforts focus on delivering a more powerful Radiotherapy beam accurately to smaller and smaller targets. Some drugs seem to make Cancer cells more vulnerable to radiation, which means less powerful Radiotherapy, or fewer sessions, are needed.
Another field of research is looking at heating cells in a specific area to make them more sensitive to Radiotherapy.