Cancer Treatment

After receiving the devastating news of a cancer diagnosis, the first  two questions are usually, “What do I do about it?”  and “Is it going to kill me?”  Fortunately, for lots of patients, the answers to these questions have gotten easier to hear.  Cancer treatment has come a long way, not only in its effectiveness but in its palatability.  Modern medicine has learned how to better focus its radiation beams and take some of the sting out of chemotherapy.  Surgeons have become more skilled and health care providers have realized that they are not treating cancer patients but people with cancer – huge difference.  There are promising developments in new treatments which I will touch upon on Friday (10/22)  Below, I have listed five of the most common treatments used now.

1.  Chemotherapy is the use of any chemical agent to treat a disease.  More than 1/2 of all cancer patients will receive some form of chemo.  It can be given through the vein (IV), in a pill form, injected or intraperitoneal (administered into the abdomen). Cancer cells typically divide very rapidly.  Most chemo agents are designed to attack the mechanisms by which they reproduce.  Inevitably, healthy cells in the body that are constantly dividing are damaged as well, hence the side effects you may be familiar with.  They will affect the hair cells, the lining of the gastrointestinal tract, the bone marrow where your blood cells are produced and the reproductive system.  Therefore, chemo can cause hair loss, nausea and GI problems, anemia (low red blood cells), immunosuppression (low white blood cells), and infertility. There are now wonderful drugs to combat some of these side effects so while a patient who is undergoing chemo may still need a wig, they can also still have a life. 2.  Radiation uses high-energy radiation (like that used in x-rays) to attack the DNA of cancer cells.  It is often used in conjunction with chemo and surgery but in some cancers it can be used alone.  Like chemo, as it attacks cancer cells, it can also attack normal cells.  The most common side effects short term are damage to the surrounding tissue and organs near the site being radiated.  For instance, if the abdomen is being radiated, the overlying skin can become irritated and the patient may experience nausea.  If the head is being radiated, hair loss can ensue and the patient may experience memory loss.  Like chemo, radiation technology is improving to lessen these side effects. 3.  Surgery can be used for anything from an attempt at a cure to palliating pain.  Diagnosing and staging is often done during surgery.   It is limited in that a surgeon can only get what he can see and cancer cells are often floating around.  The earlier a cancer is caught, the better the chance that it can all be removed.  I realize I am beating a dead horse on this “catch it early” theme but to hell with the horse, I’m not a vet. 4.  Complementary treatment is exactly what it sounds like — it complements the traditional treatments.  It encompasses anything from nutrition and supplements to acupuncture to yoga.  It has come to be thought of as a critical part of cancer treatment and aims to treat the whole person and not just the cancer. 5.  Alternative therapies are those that are used instead of standard care.  Standard care treatments are backed by scientific evidence.  Alternative treatments are not.  This does not mean that they won’t work, but it does mean that we don’t have any proof that they will.  There are valid and well-meaning practitioners who promote and provide alternative therapies and then, there are charlatans.  I believe with all my heart that there is a special place in hell —  a really, really hot, particularly painful place — for people who take advantage of people with cancer and their loved ones. Other treatments you may have heard about are hormonal treatments and bone marrow transplants.  They are used only for specific types of cancer.  For more general information about cancer treatment, check out the following sites.  For information regarding treatment for a specific type of cancer, you can google, but be very careful.  Be smart.  Know the author and the agenda of the site before you get sucked in.  As I am learning through blogging, people can say anything they want on the internet and get away with it! National Cancer Institute Mayo Clinic
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