About Cancer Treatment
The three medical treatments for cancer are surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy. Surgical removal of all or as much of a tumor as possible is considered the best treatment for cancer, particularly if the tumor is small and cells have not spread throughout the body. If even a few cancer cells remain, however, they may grow into new tumors, which is the reason that surgery, such as mastectomy, often removes a great deal of tissue in addition to the tumor.
If there is evidence that tumor cells have spread, or if some of the tumor could not be removed surgically, then radiation or chemotherapy, or both, are used to kill the remaining cancer cells. X-rays or other forms of high-energy radiation can destroy cancer cells as can the powerful drugs used in chemotherapy. Because radiation therapy and chemotherapy destroy normal cells as well as cancer cells, only limited amounts of each treatment can be administered.
Despite improvements in surgical techniques and development of new chemotherapeutic drugs, cancer treatments today are not noticeably more successful than they were in the past, a fact that is reflected in the more or less unchanged death rates for most cancers. Because of the limited success of current cancer therapies, new approaches are being tested.
An analysis of cancer mortality over the past 40 years in the U.S. led to the following conclusion:
The best of modern medicine has much to offer to virtually every patient with cancer, for palliation if not always for cure, and every patient should have access to the earliest possible diagnosis and the best possible treatment. The problem is the lack of substantial improvement over what treatment could already accomplish some decades ago. A national commitment to the prevention of cancer, largely replacing reliance on hopes for universal cures, is now the way to go.
(Bailar and Gornik, 1997).
If you're told you have cancer, either as a result of a routine checkup or in the course of having some symptom evaluated, all is not lost. Many malignancies can either be cured or controlled for years, especially if they are detected and treated early enough. There are millions of people who had colon, breast, stomach, prostate, uterine, skin, and other cancers who are now leading active, normal lives.
If you have cancer, consider getting a second opinion, both to confirm the diagnosis and to make sure that the treatment plan suggested is the best one available. Some insurance companies require such a consultation; others leave it up to you but will pay for it. You can either ask your doctor to recommend a specialist or you can call the National Cancer Institute at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237). They'll refer you to the closest cancer treatment center and provide you with a list of doctors who have the most experience in your particular problem.
Ask your doctor the following key questions:
- What is the exact diagnosis?
- What is the stage of the disease?
- What are my treatment choices; which one do you recommend and why?
- What are the risks, possible side effects, and chances of success of each treatment?
- What will be the duration of the treatment? How will it affect my normal activities?
- How much is it likely to cost? (Always check with your insurance carrier to see whether they will cover the recommended treatment.)
Are there any clinical trials of a new treatment in which I should be enrolled if the therapy for my particular cancer is not usually successful?
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