Common Questions About Cancer Treatment
Does exposing a tumor to the air during surgery cause cancer to spread?
Some people think if there is a suspicion of cancer and their doctor suggests exploratory surgery to see if a tumor is present the surgery will cause the cancer or make a tumor spread faster to other parts of their body. If a tumor is discovered during surgery, people may think the operation was the cause. An operation cannot cause a cancer to develop and will not cause a cancer to spread. Exposure of the cancer to "air" does not spread the disease. Occasionally surgery can cause a tumor to "seed" (spread) into the incision site. In situations where this is unavoidable, the surgeon will often suggest chemotherapy or radiation therapy to destroy any microscopic cells that may have escaped from the tumor. People may believe in this myth because after surgery the patient will often feel sicker than before the operation. This is due to the normal post-operative recovery process.
When you delay or refuse surgery because of this myth, you shortchange yourself, since the complete removal of a cancer still offers the best chance for cure. Some cancers can be cured by chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy, but surgical removal of a cancer, if possible, is often the first and most important option a patient has.
Do all cancer drugs cause the same side effects?
People generalize about chemotherapy and tend to believe that all chemotherapy treatments are alike. Approximately 40 anti-cancer drugs are now in use. Each of these drugs has different side effects, from very mild ones to those which are more difficult to cope with. Regardless of their severity, side effects can be controlled with other medications or with behavioral treatments, such as relaxation training. Nausea is an example. Not all chemotherapy causes nausea, but if you are taking medication that causes nausea, you will be given additional drugs to keep this under control. This is not to say that side effects can always be totally controlled, but your doctors and nurses will work with you to help you feel as comfortable as possible.
Hair loss is another example. Not all chemotherapy causes hair loss, but if it does, your hair will grow back. Chemotherapy works on cells that are dividing. Hair follicle cells, cells in your gastrointestinal area (mouth, stomach and intestine), and blood cells divide rapidly and therefore are more active than other cells in the body. This means that side effects such as hair loss, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, and changes in blood counts are more common, but they still do not affect all patients in the same way.
Ask your doctor what side effects you should expect from your anticancer drugs. Everyone's body is differentâ€”you may experience hardly any side effects or you may experience many of them. There is often no way to predict how you as an individual are likely to react until you begin the treatment. Experiencing side effects has nothing to do with whether or not the treatment is working.
Is radiation therapy dangerous or painful?
People often generalize about radiation therapy, thinking that side effects are all the same. Radiation therapy is painless, does not cause people to become "radioactive," and is not a last-ditch effort for hopeless cases. Radiation therapy can be a curative treatment, especially when it is used for women with certain breast cancers who are candidates for removal of the lump (lumpectomy). The side effects associated with radiation will be determined by the area of the body being treated and the amount of radiation used. People do not become sterile from radiation (except in certain kinds of treatments to the pelvic area). Today, thanks to modern technology, even this is avoidable.
The most common side effect associated with radiation therapy is fatigue, especially if treatments last for five or six weeks. This is due to the actual treatment effects combined with the physical and emotional strain of daily visits to the hospital. As with all cancer treatments, ask your doctor in advance what to expect so you will be better prepared and will know what to do if you experience side effects. Many people continue to work throughout their radiation therapy but may need to readjust their schedule or workload temporarily.
Is the treatment worse than the disease?
Some people believe that cancer treatment is worse than the disease itself. This is a particularly dangerous idea, since an untreated cancer is far more dangerous than a cancer that is being treated. If a tumor is left to grow untreated, it will eventually interfere with bodily functions and be very difficult to manage. Treatment can be curative, meaning aggressive enough to get rid of the cancer forever, or palliative, meaning to control the symptoms of the illness and/or to prolong someone's life. Palliative treatment (used to control symptoms --for example radiation to control bone pain) often results in a better quality of life for a longer period of time. People with advanced cancer will question how long to continue with treatment. You, your family, and your doctors should make these decisions together, but the treatment is not worse than leaving a cancer untreated. Since most side effects can be alleviated, treatment should always be considered the first line of attack.