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Essential Information about Cancer Treatments

With cancer rates are rising in Singapore, cancer is not a death sentence. Advances in the treatment of cancer have improved patients’ chances of survival and their overall quality of life. Here are a few commonly used therapies.



What is chemotherapy?

Simply put, chemotherapy is the use of drugs or chemical substances to treat cancer. Since it was first used in the 1950s, chemotherapy has helped many cancer patients lead full lives.


How does it work?

Cancer occurs when cells in the body don’t repair themselves properly and lose the programme to die, resulting in cells that grow at an abnormal rate. As more cancer cells are created, the condition can spread and affect other parts of the body.  The aim of chemotherapy is to slow the growth of these cancer cells or get rid of them completely. Chemotherapy is given in cycles, and, depending on the type and stage of your cancer, it may be administered daily, weekly or even monthly. While it’s commonly believed that chemotherapy weakens a patient physically, the new treatments are generally associated with improved overall results and few side effects. To improve the patient’s chances of beating cancer, chemotherapy is sometimes used after surgery to treat small, invisible groups of cancer cells.


How is it administered?

More than 100 chemotherapy drugs are used today. These drugs can be administered in a number of ways: as a pill or a liquid that is ingested, rubbed directly onto the skin, as a shot (injection), through intravenous means, or delivered directly into the spine, chest or abdomen. As some medications can affect your progress with chemotherapy, it is important to inform your doctor if you are taking any other drugs, both prescription and non-prescription.



What is radiation therapy?

Using sophisticated technology, this treatment involves the use of specialised equipment to direct focused beams onto malignant and benign tumours while minimising the effects on surrounding tissue.


How does it work?

Radiation therapy, or radiotherapy, aims to kill or control the spread of cancer cells in the body. Depending on the type of cancer a patient has, radiation may be prescribed as the only form of treatment or as part of a treatment plan that also includes chemotherapy or surgery. A course of radiation therapy may involve a single session or multiple sessions, and the treatment includes initial and follow-up consultations. Side effects vary between patients and depend on the part of the body being treated.


How is it administered?

Radiation can be administered internally through brachytherapy, where radioactive materials are placed in the body, near cancer cells. There’s also external-beam therapy, which involves precisely calculated doses of high-energy X-rays being directed to affected parts of the body. The therapy is generally pain-free and each session lasts between 15 and 30 minutes. For any radiotherapy treatment, it is important for patients to be in the exact same position every time to ensure the accuracy of the treatment. Head masks or other devices may be constructed for the patient to make it easier for her to stay still during imaging and other treatments.



What is surgical oncology?

This treatment involves the physical removal of malignant or pre-cancerous tissue from the body. Despite the availability of new anti-cancer drugs and equipment such as radiation machines, surgery is still the main cancer treatment option for diagnosis, assessing the extent of the disease and even for relieving symptoms.


When is it used?

There are different types of surgery available and what’s recommended depends on the type of cancer, the stage and position the cancer is in, and your overall health. For example, preventive or prophylactic surgery is done to remove tissue that is likely to become cancerous, even if there are no signs of cancer at the time of the surgery. The removal of pre-cancerous polyps from the colon during a colonoscopy is an example of preventive surgery. Curative surgery offers the possibility of a cure for some tumours, particularly localised ones like breast cancer.

During the procedure, the cancerous mass is removed from the body. It can be prescribed alone or in conjunction with other treatments like chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Debulking surgery removes some, but not all, cancerous tissue, to avoid damaging nearby organs or tissues. This may be carried out in patients who have advanced ovarian cancer, for instance. Once most of the tumour has been taken out, the rest of the area may be treated with radiation therapy or chemotherapy. Surgery for cancer patients can also be supportive, meaning it’s done to help make it easier for the patient to get other types of treatment.

Surgery is generally not recommended when the cancer has spread throughout the body, affects many areas or is near a blood vessel or delicate tissue, which might cause damage to the surrounding tissue. At times, it is used as a main treatment in conjunction with other prescribed treatments. Depending on the part of the body that was operated on, cancer surgery can affect a patient’s ability to be physically active, as well as her sexual and reproductive health. This is why cancer surgeons typically work in tandem with a physiotherapy and rehabilitation team, who can care for patients post-op and help in the recovery process.



What is targeted therapy?

Targeted cancer therapy is similar to chemotherapy in that it uses drugs. But unlike standard chemotherapy drugs that act against all actively dividing cells, targeted therapy drugs go after the cancer cells’ inner workings, or that which differentiates them from normal, healthy cells. This means the drugs block the specific molecules (molecular targets) that instruct these cells to grow and divide out of control.


How does it work?

Researchers first have to determine which specific molecules of the cell to target. Once this is done, they develop an appropriate therapy. For example, hormone therapy slows or halts the growth of hormone-sensitive tumours. Immunotherapy triggers the immune system to destroy cancer cells while angiogenesis inhibitors block the growth of new blood vessels to tumours.


How is it administered?

Targeted therapy may be used alone or combined with other treatments like chemotherapy. It can be given as pills or capsules that are taken orally or intravenously.



In many cases, a cancer diagnosis is not a death sentence. Early detection, together with effective treatment and proper management, can greatly increase a patient’s chances of survival. Cancer is not unlike chronic diseases like diabetes or high blood pressure, where patients have to work to keep the disease under control and prevent it from recurring. Once a patient has been diagnosed with cancer, her doctor will advise on the most suitable treatment method, depending on the patient’s overall health, physical status and the type, origin and stage of the cancer. With the right treatment and proper post-treatment care, many cancer patients go on to beat the disease and enjoy healthy and productive lives. Emotional support, in the form of support groups, often play a part in the healing process.



How much a patient has to pay for her treatment depends on various factors, including the type and stage of cancer, type of drugs prescribed and treatment regimen.


Learn more about how to cut your risk of getting cancer.


By Sasha Gonzales, Simply Her, June 2015

Photo: 123rf.com

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