If you or a loved one is diagnosed with cancer, one of the toughest decisions you’ll make is how to treat it. Cancer treatment options vary based on the type of cancer, but treatment also depends on many other factors — you and your care team must consider things like the stage of cancer, its location, the size of the mass (if there is one) and your general health and age. Treatments aren’t one-size-fits-all, just like cancer is different for each person.
Your oncologist and treatment team will guide you through the options and are available to answer your questions — but there are some things you need to think about when deciding the best cancer treatment options for you.
Depending on your situation, your doctor may recommend one type of treatment, or a combination. Surgery can range from a relatively easy outpatient procedure using local anesthesia to a complicated surgery requiring hospitalization and general anesthesia. Surgery is usually used to remove a solid tumor limited to one part of the body. Your doctor may also recommend additional treatment like chemotherapy or radiation.
Your doctor will tell you if you’re a good candidate for surgery, what kind of results to expect and about any possible complications. You should ask how the surgery, anesthesia and recovery period will affect you. While surgery can remove cancer, if you’re in poor health, there may be a higher risk for complications like a stroke during the operation. Depending on the surgical site, you may have limited mobility during recovery and may need time off work, or have driving restrictions. With any surgery, there can be postoperative pain, as well. These are the types of issues you’ll want to consider and discuss with your doctor.
Chemotherapy is a treatment option for many types of cancer. Chemotherapy slows or stops the growth of cancer cells. In doing so, it also stops the growth of healthy cells, and can cause hair loss, fatigue, nausea and mouth sores. You’ll need to plan ahead for chemotherapy in terms of work, rides, meals, housework and childcare, as the fatigue and nausea can be debilitating.
Chemotherapy is administered in different ways. Most commonly, you’ll get a pill to swallow, or a medication infusion. Chemotherapy infusions take time, and your doctor may want to surgically install a port or catheter to make it easier since there are often a number of infusions given over a period of time. Having a port or catheter means you won’t get a needle stick each time, but the site can get infected.
Radiation therapy, another popular cancer treatment option, kills or slows the growth of cancer cells. The most common form of radiation is an external beam that directs radiation at your cancer site. Some patients receive internal radiation, where a solid or liquid form of radiation enters the body by IV or the insertion of a small capsule. Patients getting this type of radiation may need to isolate themselves temporarily, as they’re literally radioactive. During radiation, you may get skin burns and exhaustion, as healthy cells are also dying. Arranging for help at home is sometimes recommended. The actual radiation treatment doesn’t take long, but often it’s done daily for a number of weeks, which can make work and other scheduling difficult.