Cancer treatments

Understanding different types of cancer treatment

Billions and billions of dollars have been spent investigating cancer treatments worldwide. Australia alone spent $252 million dollars on cancer research between 2016-2018 – and this number continues to rise! This is money well spent – the ongoing investigation of treatment options is crucial to provide cancer sufferers with the best possible recovery outcomes. 

The wide array of cancer treatment options today mean that understanding what they are, and how they affect the people going through them, is even more important for those of us working alongside these patients.  


What are the options?  

The most commonly utislised treatments for cancer are surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Other treatment options becoming more widely utilised include immunotherapy, hormone therapy and targeted therapy. But the list does go on! 

The type of treatment a patient receives comes down to a number of factors, including the type and location of the cancer, how advanced it is and the patient’s preferences and goals. As with most conditions, cancer treatment rarely involves just one approach. Most of the time, patients will be going through 2 or more of the above treatment types. 


Surgical treatment 

Many types of cancer are treated with surgery; it works best for cancers that are contained in one location in the body. During the operation, the surgeon removes cancerous tissue/cells (i.e. a tumor) plus some surrounding tissue. Sometimes surgery can remove the entire tumor and other times, it is used to reduce the size of or “debulk” the tumor to assist alongside other treatment methods. Beyond treatment, surgery is also used to diagnose/test for cancer. This can be minimally invasive surgery using tiny specialised cameras to analyse cells, or open surgery, by removing lymph nodes to be tested. 



The word “chemo” refers to chemicals; chemotherapy therefore refers to the use of specific chemicals, or drugs, to kill cancer cells. Because cancer involves the development of fast-growing, abnormal cells, chemotherapy works by targeting any fast-growing cells in the body – destroying or slowing their growth. There are over 100 types of drugs used for chemotherapy depending on the type of cancer, which can be prescribed via IV lines, pills or even creams. It is used for a wide range of cancers, including those that are confined to one area (tumors) and those that spread throughout the body. 

Of the most common cancer treatments, chemotherapy has the most notable side effects. This is due to the fact that whilst destroying cancer cells, many healthy cells that grow quickly are affected also. These include those in our digestive system and those that encourage hair growth – among others. For this reason, managing symptoms is a huge part of chemotherapy. (More on this next week!).


Radiation therapy

Radiation works by utilising high energy particles or waves to target and disrupt the DNA of cancer cells. Radiation is more localised than chemotherapy – it is used to target only the area of the body where cancer is present. 

Radiation can be broken down into external and internal radiation. External radiation uses a machine outside of the body to target the portion of the body affected by cancer cells, similar to an X-ray. Internal radiation involves a radioactive source being consumed or placed inside the body, which sits close to the cancer itself, destroying cells. Radiation treatment is a balance of ensuring the effectiveness of the treatment, while targeting as little healthy tissues as possible. The healthy tissues that are affected by radiation will elicit symptoms, however these tissues are usually less affected than cancer tissues and are able to regenerate once treatment is over. 


Other commonly used therapies

There are more than 100 types of cancers, each affecting unique components of our body systems. For this reason, other treatment types are also common to combat the various pathologies. Hormone therapy is prevalent in cancers that rely on hormones to grow and thrive – such as breast and prostate cancers. It works by blocking or altering hormone balance to “starve” these cancers.

Immunotherapy involves boosting the body’s immune system, commonly used for cancers that have spread throughout the whole body, to help strengthen our natural defenses and slow its growth. Stem cell or bone marrow transplants are perhaps one of the more aggressive approaches to cancer treatment. This type of treatment involves transplanting healthy cells into a cancer patient that will either hunt and kill cancer cells, or allow for a very high dose of chemotherapy. 

Having a better understanding of the treatments themselves is step one in working within this space. The next step as exercise physiologists is understanding how these treatments affect patients and what we can do to best accommodate these effects. How do we do that? Check out next week’s article to find out. 





Author: Tessa Nielsen
Editor: Yolanda van Vugt
Clinical Exercise Physiologist and Content Creator at Specialised Health

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