Understanding Cancer and it’s Treatments, Part II

If you haven’t already, be sure to read Part I

Types of Cancer Treatment

All treatment options involve three possible overall goals, sometimes performed at the same time:  slow the spread of cancer, kill the cancerous cells, or remove the cancerous cells.  There’s a multiple options for treating cancer.  Various factors are involved in what treatments are used:  age, type of cancer, stage of cancer, how aggressive it is, and how well it has reacted to other treatments that may have been used.

A good example of how varied it can be:  in my case, a plastic surgeon simply cut it out.  In the case of Becky Hill, her treatment was a combination of chemotherapy, radiation, and a special targeted version of radiation to take on lung cancer.

Surgery:  For some forms of cancer, one option is simply cut it out.  In the case of my basal cell carcinoma, they actually did two surgeries.  The first was done in a doctor’s office, and in the process, she knew she hadn’t gotten it all, and referred me to plastic surgeon.  Not all surgery is created equally, though.  With the second doctor, he used a process called Mohs surgery, where they remove the affected tissue, and inspect the edges of the removed tissue to see if there are any pieces at the edges.  If so, they come back and remove a little more, until they are sure.

Chemotherapy: From time to time, you may see posts on Facebook and other social media about how chemotherapy is poison, and harmful.  In a way, they aren’t wrong – chemo is toxic, but it’s “tuned” to be more toxic to cancer cells.  Often, it’s not a single chemical, but a cocktail of chemicals specially blended for certain types of cancer.   Chemotherapy is the source of alopecia, the hair falling out.  It’s also associated with nausea, diarrhea, decreased mental function (chemobrain), and a number of other side effects that you can read about in our interview with Becky Hill as she goes through chemotherapy.

Radiation:  Either specifically targeted, or used on large parts of the body, radiation can be used to kill cancer cells.  While it can be hazardous to healthy cells, new drugs called radiosensitizers cause the cancer cells to become more sensitive to radiation, allowing the rest of the body to remain less damaged.  Additionally, some radiation treatments are extremely targeted, such as the cyberknife, to expose only a small amount of tissue to radiation.

Hormone Therapy:  Certain hormones can be modified to affect the growth of cancer.  Breast and prostate cancer both can be slowed by adjusting certain hormones.  Estrogen speeds the growth of breast cancer, so reducing or blocking the body’s natural estrogen levels can be used to slow the growth of cancer.  For prostate cancer, it’s androgens that are blocked to slow down the growth of cancer cells in the prostate.

Using the Immune System

The human body has a wonderful system for attempting to prevent stuff from the outside world from killing us.  The immune system attacks viruses, bacteria, and other things that try and invade our bodies.  In some cases, the immune system gets confused and attacks parts of the body.  Immunotherapy isn’t available for many forms of cancer, but, when it is, it’s rather interesting:  it turns the situation on it’s head and convinces the body to attack the cancer cells as if it were a foreign invader.  Some versions of immunotherapy use specific proteins derived from the immune system to attack the cancer cells.


So, is there a way to avoid the 100 plus types of cancer?  Yes, and no.  As mentioned in the Origins section, some of them are genetic – at the moment, there’s not preventative measures for the genetic versions of cancer.  For some cancers involving viruses, such as cervical cancer and certain liver cancers, vaccines are available to reduce or eliminate the likelihood of developing those forms of cancer.

Lifestyle also affects the likelihood of certain cancers.  Obesity and a sedentary lifestyle should be avoided.  Tobacco use and heavy alcohol use weigh heavily on your chances of certain cancers.  What you eat and drink makes a large difference.  And, of course, your family history can be one of the largest factors in determining if you will develop cancer – if you have a family member that was affected by cancer, it considerably increases the possibility that you’ll also develop cancer.

Oddly, there’s a missing piece of advice on sites concerning cancer I’ve researched for this article:  talk to your medical professional.  Keep them informed of your changes to lifestyle and health, and talk to them about the risk factors that may be involved in your life, from sexual activity to activity levels.  Reading stuff online is nice, but like the problem with using WebMD to diagnose your symptoms, the advice isn’t tailored towards your life.

The Future of Cancer

The outlook for cancer continues to improve every year.  New vaccines are being developed and tested to block cancer causing viruses.  More effective hormone treatments and chemotherapy drugs are being developed.  The 5-year survival rate for those with cancer continue to improve, and methods of early detection – one of the most important factors in combating cancer – continue to improve.   While the word cancer may be scary, it’s getting less scary all the time.

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Header image:  Basal Cell Carcinoma, Small Cell Carcinoma, Squamous Cell Carcinoma, Signet Ring Cell Carcinoma, Medullary Carcinoma of the Colon, all from Flickr