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Cancer Treatment 101

Image of Shawna Kraft, Pharm.D
Shawna Kraft, Pharm.D.

Cancer can be treated with many types of therapy. Think of it as CREST.

Chemotherapy attacks cancer by affecting how it grows, causing the cells to die. Chemotherapy is not specific to cancer cells so can affect our normal cells, especially those that grow quickly (hair, skin, mouth, bone marrow). This is why many chemotherapies cause hair loss, skin issues and mouth sores, and also can decrease our infection-fighting cells, platelets and hemoglobin.

Radiation is the use of high-energy x-rays to kill cancer cells. Side effects vary depending where on your body you receive treatment. They can include diarrhea, fatigue, nausea and skin irritation. Another form of radiation treatment involves placing radioactive sources in or next to a tumor (brachytherapy).

Endocrine or hormonal therapies decrease or stop production of estrogen, progesterone, testosterone or cortisol levels in the body, usually to fight breast, prostate or adrenal cancers. These medications prevent the normal hormones in our bodies from helping cancer grow. Side effects include hot flashes or joint pain.

Surgery is used to remove tumors and surrounding tissue, to reduce the size of tumors or to relieve symptoms caused by a tumor. It can range from small incisions to major procedures with varying side effects.

Targeted therapy makes up a range of cancer medications that treat cancer by precisely identifying and attacking genes or proteins causing cancer growth. Side effects are often less severe than chemotherapy because the drugs have less impact on normal cells. Types of targeted therapy might include:

  • Immunotherapy stimulates the immune system to attack cancer.
  • Small molecule inhibitors usually target a specific mutation that helps cancer grow.
  • Biologic agents range from affecting the immune system to targeting specific cancer cells. An example is cetuximab, an antibody that targets cancer cells driven by the epidermal growth factor receptor.

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Continue reading the Spring 2016 issue of Thrive.


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Thrive Issue: 
Spring, 2016