Skip to main content
Find a provider

Treating cancer

Chemotherapy, radiation therapy, cryosurgery. . . it's good to know that there's more than one answer to cancer.

But it can also be confusing when you're weighing your own treatment options. What are the disadvantages of chemotherapy? What's internal radiation? Does every treatment require a stay in the hospital?

The American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute offer detailed information about the various treatments available for many types of cancer. Each site also provides questions you might want to ask your doctor and tips on how to keep track of all the information he or she provides.

In general, there are three primary ways to treat cancer: surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Depending on the type of cancer, doctors may recommend additional treatment options, such as immunotherapy or hormone therapy.

What follows is a brief summary of each of the three basic options, including some advantages and other considerations.

It's important to note, however, that not every treatment is an option for every cancer. Together, you and your doctor will decide on the treatment strategy that's right for you.

Surgery

What: Surgery can be used to diagnose cancer (biopsy), assess the extent of cancer, remove a tumor or reconstruct organs after tumor removal.

Where: Some surgeries require a hospital stay, but others don't.

How: It can be performed with lasers, electrical currents, liquid nitrogen (to freeze abnormal cells, also known as cryosurgery) or more traditional surgical instruments.

Advantages: Surgery can be very precise, targeting only cancerous tissue.

Considerations: Surgery can be invasive and may require a hospital stay.

Chemotherapy

What: Chemotherapy means using medicines to treat cancer. Sometimes several medicines are prescribed at the same time. Chemotherapy is often used along with other treatments.

Where: Varies; chemotherapy can be given at home or a doctor's office, and sometimes requires a hospital stay.

How: Varies; the treatment can be delivered intravenously, by injection, via pills, or on or under the skin.

Side effects: Nausea, fatigue, hair loss.

Advantages: Chemotherapy is not invasive.

Considerations: Chemotherapy targets abnormal cells but can harm healthy ones too. Some of these healthy cells can repair themselves.

Radiation therapy

What: Radiation therapy destroys or damages cancer cells with x-rays, gamma rays, and other high-energy particles or waves. It's often used in conjunction with other therapies.

Where: Radiation therapy is usually performed during an office or hospital visit but sometimes requires a hospital stay.

How: External radiation is usually delivered by a large machine at a clinic. Internal radiation involves implanting a pellet or wire containing a radioactive substance at the tumor site. Internal radiation can also be delivered by injection or by mouth.

Advantages: Radiation therapy can target very specific areas.

Considerations: Although this therapy does not make you radioactive, in some cases contact with others may be limited temporarily.

Learn more

For more information, visit the Cancer health topic center.

reviewed 3/4/2019

Related stories