Treatments and Side Effects

Last Modified: November 1, 2001

What are some treatments of cancer?

Hormone Therapy

Hormone therapy is the use or manipulation of hormones natural or synthetic to treat disease. For example in prostate cancer some frequently used hormones are Eulexin and Flutamide. Hormone therapy is used in three ways:

  • injection or orally

  • surgical removal of hormone producing glands

  • radiation treatment to destroy hormone producing cells
Radiation Therapy

This is a picture of the clinic at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital. Patients come here to be examined before receiving radiation therapy.

Radiation therapy is the use of high-energy penetrating rays or subatomic particles to treat or control cancer. Radiation can be given in two ways, externally by a special machine, or internally, by placing radioactive substances in the body. External radiation is more commonly used and sometimes both methods are used.

This is a picture of the linear accelerator which is the machine radiation oncologists use to administer radiation treatment.

  • External radiation therapy - a machine delivers radiation to cancer inside the body or on the surface of the skin. Different machines are used depending upon the location of the cancer and the energy of the machine.

This is a picture of the simulator. Radiation oncologists use this machine to map out how they are going to give the radiation treatment.

  • Internal radiation therapy-a radioactive substance is sealed inside a small container such as a wire, tube, seed, capsule, or needle called an implant. The implant is placed directly into the tumor or into a body cavity. The container remains inside side your body, but the radioactive substance only remains in your body for the length of its half life. For instance if the material that radiation oncologists are using has a half life of 72 hours the material only effectively fights the cancer in your body for 72 hours. For some cancer sites it may be permanently implanted. Unsealed radiation in liquid form may also be used.

This is a picture of the dosimetry unit. This is where doctors discuss the amount of radiation they are going to use based on the condition of the patient.


Sometimes cancer patients experience bone pain, SVC (superior vena cava) syndrome, or other symptoms that may or may not be curative. If this happens radiation oncologists may prescribe treatment and/or medication to alleviate the symptoms.


Chemotherapy is the treatment or control of cancer using anticancer drugs, highly toxic medications that destroy cancer cells by interfering with their growth or by preventing their reproduction. Often times these drugs are combined so that they are more effective in cancer treatment. Some known combinations are cytarabine and doxorubicin or doxorubicin and carmustine. Chemotherapy is also used to prolong life when a cure is improbable and to relieve symptoms.

Biological Therapy

Biological therapy uses the immune system, either directly or indirectly, to fight cancer or to lessen side effects that may be caused by some cancer treatment. Biological therapies used to treat cancer restore the body's natural cancer defense mechanisms, reverse the process that changes a precancerous cell into a cancerous cell, and prevent cancer cells from spreading to other parts of the body.

Surgical Therapy

Surgical removal of cancerous tumors is divided into several types each serving their own individual purpose. They are as follows:

  • Staging surgery

Staging surgery is performed to determine the extent of disease. Based on the findings after this surgery, the oncologists selects the procedure that would be most appropriate for this stage of the disease. Staging is also used to eliminate radical procedures such as hysterectomies, and prostatectomies.

  • Definitive surgery

Definitive surgery tries to remove as much of the tumor as possible. During this procedure the entire tumor as well as surrounding tissue are removed to try to prevent metastases. If done in the early stages, this surgery can cure some cancers.

  • Preventive surgery

Usually for patients with family history of cancer, or increased risk of developing cancer, tissue where tumor is thought will develop is removed.

  • Palliative surgery

Palliative surgery relieves symptoms in advanced stages of cancer when medication does not work. Some procedures involved surgical interruption of nerve pathways due to pain.

Side Effects

Besides the removal of the cancerous tumors many of the therapies have side effects. Some are nausea, constipation, diarrhea, hair loss, and vomiting. As a result, doctors have developed ways to alleviate some of these side effects either through medication or by following these simple steps:

  • nausea and vomiting (most frequently linked to chemotherapy as well as radiation to the stomach or brain)

-eat slowly and chew well

-eat dry foods like toast, dry cereal, and crackers

-drink clear unsweetened beverages

-breathe through mouth when feeling nausea

  • diarrhea (most frequently linked to radiation to the colon, rectum, or prostate)

-try a clear liquid diet to give bowels a rest

-drink fluids to replace those lost

-eat smaller amounts of food more often

-avoid highly spiced foods a sweets

-avoid milk and milk products

  • constipation

-drink a lot of fluid

-eat high fiber foods

-keep up normal level of activity; exercise if possible

Sometimes the side effects are handled surgically such as the reformation of breast after a mastectomy or the reconstruction of a patient's face after face or neck treatment.

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