Check here for alerts

How is cancer treated?

There are numerous treatments for cancer. The aim of any treatment is to remove cancerous cells to try to ensure the cancer doesn't return. This can be challenging because even if just one cancerous cell remains after treatment, it has the potential to create a new tumour.

The main techniques used to treat cancer are listed below. 

Surgery

Surgery is a common treatment option. However, the type of surgery a person has and when they have it depends on which cancer it is and what stage it's at.

Read about the stages and grades of cancer

Surgery removes the tumour and some normal tissue surrounding it. The removed tissue is sent to a laboratory for analysis and the results help doctors to decide whether further treatment, such as radiotherapy or chemotherapy, is needed.

Chemotherapy

During chemotherapy, powerful medicine is used to kill cancerous cells. It can be given either as a tablet or directly into a vein, using an injection or infusion.

There are more than 100 different types of chemotherapy medication (and new ones are being developed all the time) that can be used to treat hundreds of different types of cancer.

Radiotherapy

Radiotherapy, also known as radiation treatment, can also be used to treat many forms of cancer. It can be given outside the body by using X-rays, or inside the body using a liquid that's either swallowed or injected, or by putting radioactive material in or close to the tumour. About half of all people with cancer have radiotherapy as part of their treatment plan. 

Hormone therapy

Hormone therapy works by lowering the levels of hormones in your body or by stopping their effects. Prostate cancer in particular needs testosterone to grow, and some breast cancers are stimulated by oestrogen or progesterone.

Biological therapy

Biological therapies are treatments that affect the processes that occur in cells. They can:

  • stop cancerous cells dividing and growing
  • seek out and destroy cancerous cells
  • encourage the immune system to attack cancerous cells (immunotherapy)

Interferon and interleukin are two substances that are sometimes used during immunotherapy to boost the immune system and help treat certain types of cancer, such as kidney cancer.

Monoclonal antibodies directly target and attack specific proteins on cancerous cells.

Angiogenesis inhibitors interfere with the development of blood vessels that deliver nutrients and oxygen, which tumours need to survive.

Tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs) work by blocking enzymes (chemical messengers) called tyrosine kinases. Tyrosine kinases encourage cells to grow, so blocking them stops the cell growing and dividing.

The Cancer Research UK website has more about biological therapy.

Stem cell and bone marrow transplants

Stem cell and bone marrow transplants are often used to treat leukaemia (cancer of the blood cells) and lymphoma (cancer that develops in the lymphatic system).

Complementary and alternative therapies

Complementary therapies can be used alongside conventional cancer treatments. They can sometimes improve a person’s quality of life by helping them cope better with their cancer symptoms or the side effects of their cancer treatment.

Examples of complementary therapies include acupuncture, herbal medicine, massage therapy and yoga.

Alternative therapies are those used instead of conventional treatment, rather than in combination with them.

Contrary to what some alternative therapists may claim, there’s no scientific evidence to show that alternative therapies can cure cancer. Read more about complementary and alternative medicine.

The Cancer Research UK website also has more specific information about complementary and alternative therapies.

Further information: 

Page last reviewed: 11/01/2016

Next review due: 11/01/2018