Cancer Decoded: A Cancer Nurse Explains The Treatments

In 2014, the latest reseach showed that 357,000 people were diagnosed with cancer in the UK. And while it’s still one of the main causes of death in the UK, the death rate has dropped by 10% – a hopeful statistic due mainly to evolving treatments, which are getting more advanced by the day. When someone you love is diagnosed with cancer, the reality of the disease can be devastating. And while the only thing you want is for them to be better again, it can be confusing to know which treatment options are best.

Cancer treatments are usually depicted as complex and draining. Although most of us have a general understanding of how to treat cancer, it’s usually clouded by an image of throwing up and losing your hair. And while these can be a reality of cancer treatments, none one should be scared of treatment, as the amount of people dying from cancer has gone from 312 in every 100,000 a decade ago, to 284 out of every 100,000 due to medical advances.

But how much do we really understand about the options available to us for treatment? We spoke to Head Nurse at Cancer Research UK, Martin Ledwick, who explains all about the various options available, revealing the best path for different individuals.

Martin says, “The most important thing to note is that treatment is decided on each person’s specific cancer. Doctors will assess which cancer they have, where it is, how much it may have spread, what the cancer cells look like under a microscope, and the general state of the individuals health. Treatment options will vary depending on all of these.”

Chemotherapy

The most well-known of all cancer treatment options. Chemo means treatment of the cancer via drugs, with 100 different ones available at the moment, and new ones being developed all the time. 

How it is given? Chemo is usually given to a person suffering from cancer via a drip or an injection, but it can in some cases be ingested orally. Chemotherapy can sometimes be given on it’s own, or alongside other therapies, depending on your cancer.

Which cancer is it usually given for? This kind of treatment can be given for all kinds of cancer, but is most commonly used as part of a bone marrow or stem cell transplant, in order to make sure all of the blood cells are caught and zapped. 

How long will treatment last? Chemotherapy can last for up to six months, depending on the severity and spread of your particular cancer. However, this does not mean that you will be in hospital for the entire duration. Very often, patients receiving chemotherapy are only required to go into hospital for one day to receive the drug, and can go home while it is taking effect. Some patients may also be sent home with chemo drugs to take, without needing to go to hospital for treatment. Martin also states that it is important to realise, not all chemo drugs will make you sick. “There are lots of drugs out there and while some of them will make you vomit, others won’t. But medicine now means that we can give anti-sickness tablets and injections to people having chemotherapy treatment, so side effects are far less than they used to be.” Who knew?

Available on the NHS? Yes

Surgery

Surgery is still the most commonly used and popular method of treating cancer. It’s usually used if there is a lump (mass of cancerous cells), which need cutting away.

How is it done? Patients are given either local or general anaesthetic to be able to cut away the cancerous tissue from the body. Doctors will also remove some healthy tissue around the lump to make sure that the cancer hasn’t, and won’t, spread.

Which cancer is it usually given for? Surgery is best used on a cancer that hasn’t spread. It may be the only treatment required if this is the case, although often other methods are used alongside it. Surgery can usually cure small cancers that haven’t spread. It won’t generally be used for blood cancers, such as leukaemia, as there is nothing solid to extract.

How long will treatment last? Operations to remove cancer tissue could take up to four hours, and how long you have to stay in hospital depends on the scale of the operation and what kind of anaesthetic was required. If a local anaesthetic was used to cut away a small area, you may well be able to go home that same day. However, if a general or regional anaesthetic was used, you may need to stay in hospital for a few days/nights, in order for nurses to keep an eye on you and how you’re recovering.

Available on the NHS? Yes

Radiotherapy

Using radiation to treat cancer, this method destroys cancer cells by damaging their DNA. Radiotherapy zaps the unhealthy cancer cells and, while it can reach normal healthy cells, is often a good way to undertake targeted treatment.

How is it done? Radiotherapy can be given either internally or externally. If it is given externally, X-rays from machines will be pointed at the specific section of the body doctors are targeting. However, if doctors choose to give the treatment internally, patients are required to either drink a liquid or take a tablet that will be sent towards the tumour.

Which cancer is it usually given for? Radiotherapy can be given for all kinds of cancers.

How long will treatment last? The actual treatment doesn’t take long at all. However, depending on how treatment is given, patients may feel the effects for some time. You may suffer from loss of hair in the treated area, sore skin, and general feelings of tiredness. If internal treatment is given, you may well be radioactive for some days. But, as terrifying as that sounds, Martin says that this is nothing to panic about. “Doctors will keep you in an isolated room for a few days, to keep an eye on you, but after that time, side effects will have disappeared and there will be no lasting problems.”

Available on the NHS? Yes.

Hormone therapy

Hormone therapy uses medicine to block the effects of hormones. Hormones act as messengers to our bodies, and so blocking the effects of some can sometimes stop certain cancers. Hormone therapy blocks cancers that are dependent on hormones to grow or develop. They are usually not the first method of treatment, and are used more as maintenance treatments after initial treatments.

How is it done? Hormones are usually given in tablet form for breast cancer, and in the form of injections for prostate cancer. These drugs can help to stop production of hormones, or to block them.

Which cancer is it usually given for? Martin says, “Hormone therapy is usually only on offer for a very limited range of cancers. It is most commonly given to people with either breast cancer or prostate cancer, as these cancers are most hormone sensitive.”

How long with treatment last? People can use hormone therapies for years after their cancer diagnosis, in order to keep cancer cells at bay.

Available on the NHS? Yes

New, promising treatments…

Biological therapy…This is a new form of cancer treatment which is still in development, but is being offered in some places. Biological therapy is an umbrella term for treatments which act on the proteins occuring in cells in order to change the biology of cancerous masses. But Martin advises you to be careful with these…”Biological therapy might be on offer to you, but it is still experimental. We don’t know the very long-term side effects of these – although it can be as effective as other treatments in treating cancer in the short-term.” They are targeted treatments – much like hormone therapy. “One cancer that biological therapy has really made a difference to is melanoma – it can be very successful with this cancer. We’re looking to tailor treatments more to specific cancers – but we’re not quite there yet.”

Martin Ledwick, Head Information Nurse at Cancer Research UK is supporting Cancer Research UK’s ‘Right Now’ campaign to beat cancer sooner. Visit cruk.org

– If you have questions about cancer, call Cancer Research UK’s nurses on Freephone: 0808 800 4040 between 9am and 5pm, Monday to Friday – Cancer Research UK have comprehensive plain English information about Cancer on their website at cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer
– To talk to others affected by cancer join their online forum Cancer Chat cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/cancer-chat

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