The treatment given for cancer is highly variable and dependent on a number of factors including the type, location and amount of disease and the health status of the patient. The treatments are designed to directly kill/remove the cancer cells or to lead to their eventual death by depriving them of signals needed for cell division or stimulating the body’s own defenses. The treatments may be divided into different categories based on their goal and mode of action. Often the different types of treatment are used in combination, either simultaneously or sequentially.
Presently these are the different forms of treatments used to combat cancer:
Surgery: Often the first line of treatment for many solid tumors. In cases in which the cancer is detected at an early stage, surgery may be sufficient to cure the patient by removing all cancerous cells. Benign growths may also be removed by surgery.
Radiation: May be used in conjunction with surgery and/or drug treatments. The goal of radiation is to kill the cancer cells directly by damaging them with high energy beams.
Chemotherapy: A term used for a wide array of drugs used to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy drugs work by damaging the dividing cancer cells and preventing their further reproduction.
Hormonal Treatments: These drugs are designed to prevent cancer cell growth by preventing the cells from receiving signals necessary for their continued growth and division.
Specific Inhibitors: This class of drugs is relatively new in the treatment of cancer. They work by targeting specific proteins and processes that are limited primarily to cancer cells or that are much more prevalent in cancer cells. Inhibition of these processes prevents cancer cell growth and division.
Antibodies: This treatment involves the use of antibodies to target cancer cells. While antibodies are naturally occurring proteins in our bodies, the antibodies used in the treatment of cancer have been manufactured for use as drugs. The antibodies may work by several different mechanisms, either depriving the cancer cells of necessary signals or causing the direct death of the cells. Because of their specificity, antibodies may be thought of as a type of specific inhibitor.
Biological Response Modifiers: These treatments involve the use of naturally occurring, normal, proteins to stimulate the body’s own defenses against cancer.
Vaccines: The purpose of cancer vaccines is to stimulate the body’s defenses against cancer. Vaccines usually contain proteins found on or produced by cancer cells. By administering these proteins, the treatment aims to increase the response of the body against the cancer cells.
One of the main causes of failure in the treatment of cancer is the development of drug resistance by the cancer cells. This is a very serious problem that may lead to recurrence of disease or even death. A new drug which has properties to selectively identify and destroy cancer which have become resistant to drugs will be highly successful. Another important factor in the development of more specific cancer drugs is the targeting of cancer-specific processes, instead of processes common to all cells. Because these drugs are not directly toxic, and because they only affect cancer cells, they offer the hope of being highly specific with few side effects. The combination of a highly specific cancer drug that is able to attack a tumor’s weaknesses, and standard chemotherapy to deliver a powerful attack on the tumor, may prove to be an excellent means of treating cancer.