How Do Cancer Treatments Work?

Brooke Rosenbaum
Last Modified: October 21, 2011


Chemotherapy is a term for a wide range of cancer drugs. These drugs kill cancer cells by inhibiting certain important steps in cell division and tend to work best in rapidly dividing cells. Since cancer cells are dividing rapidly, they are susceptible to damage from this therapy. However, healthy cells such as those that line the gastrointestinal tract (mouth, throat and bowel) and hair follicles also divide rapidly and can be affected by the chemotherapy.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy kills cancer cells by damaging the DNA of cells, preventing them from reproducing and causing them to die.

Hormone Therapy

Hormone therapy is used prevent cancer cell growth by preventing the cells from receiving signals necessary for their continued growth and division. Only certain cancers that use hormones to fuel growth respond to this treatment.


Immunotherapy works by stimulating your own immune system to work more efficiently to fight diseases, including cancer.

Targeted Therapy

Targeted therapy is one of the newest categories of cancer drugs. They work by targeting specific proteins and processes that are only found in cancer cells. Inhibition of these processes prevents cancer cell growth and division, while minimizing harm to normal cells.

Bone Marrow and Stem Cell Transplants

Transplants are used in some bone and blood cancers in order to replace the cancerous cells with healthy cells.


Surgery is used to physically remove a tumor mass and is often the first line of treatment for a cancer. In some cases, the tumor may be removed, but other treatments are still given after surgery (called adjuvant therapy) to prevent any stray cancer cells from gathering strength and causing the cancer to reoccur.

Learn More

OncoLink Cancer Treatment Information
American Cancer Society: Cancer Treatment Types
CancerQuest: Cancer Treatments