Updated: Feb 15
Though the thought of cancer treatment can be daunting, your apprehension can be lessened by developing a better understanding about how cancer treatment works. When it comes to treating cancer, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and surgery are the most successful and widely used options. Chemotherapy, radiation therapy and cancer surgery are often used hand in hand, but many people don’t understand the differences between these three treatments.
To understand cancer treatment, it’s important to first understand cancer itself. Cancer is caused by the development of abnormal cells as the result of changes or mutations to the DNA within those cells. This causes the cells to multiply rapidly, which allows the cells to permeate and attack normal tissues throughout the body, and to collect in certain places and coalesce as tumors.
The DNA inside a cell is a set of many individual genes, each of which contain a set of instructions that tell the cell what functions to perform, as well as what rates to grow and multiply. Errors in these instructions can stop the cell from functioning normally, leading to the development and mass production of cancerous cells. Gene abnormalities can cause the cell to:
Grow and divide rapidly, creating many new cells with the same mutation
Fail to stop abnormal cell growth
Fail to repair errors within the cell’s DNA
What is chemotherapy?
Chemotherapy uses cytotoxic chemicals (chemicals poisonous to living cells) that specifically target rapidly reproducing cells, such as those that are cancerous. But the human body also normally produces rapidly growing cells that aren’t cancerous, including bone marrow, hair follicles, and the lining of the digestive tract. These are also affected by chemotherapy treatments, which can lead to adverse side effects, like hair loss and nausea.
What is radiation therapy?
Radiation therapy uses beams of ionized radiation to destroy cancer cells. The beams can be aimed at specific areas of the body to target and treat the cancer. Radiation therapy damages cancer cells by destroying the genetic material that determines how the cells grow and multiply. Similar to chemotherapy, both healthy and cancerous cells are exposed to the toxic effects of radiation therapy.
Fortunately, exposure can be limited by precisely targeting the cancerous cells so as not to affect as many noncancerous cells. In addition, both chemotherapy and radiation therapy deliver treatment in fractions, meaning there are breaks in between treatment sessions that gives the healthy cells the opportunity to recover. The cancer cells, due to their faulty DNA, are unable to regain their strength and eventually die off.
What is cancer surgery?
Cancer surgery is an operation or series of operations that involve the removal of the cancer along with a margin of surrounding healthy tissues to ensure that all of the cancer is removed. Depending on your case, cancer surgery may be your only treatment method, or it may be combined with other treatments. Or you may not require surgery as part of your treatment. For many cancerous tumors, surgery is the best chance for a cure, especially if the cancer is hasn’t metastasized (spread to other areas of the body).
Side effects of cancer treatment
Unfortunately, cancer treatment can create unpleasant side effects. These include:
Nausea and vomiting
Burning, numbness or shooting pains in extremities
Blood clotting issues
Throat and mouth sores
Stomach pain and digestive issues
Muscle and nerve effects
Effects on skin and nails
Effects on sexual organs
The START Center for Cancer Care is dedicated to compassionate and effective care to beat your cancer. Cancer treatment can be a taxing process, so we offer support groups and classes to empower our cancer patients and their families. To schedule any appointment, call 210-745-6841 today.