Cancer diagnosis

Common medical treatments

There are many types of cancer treatment. The types of treatment that you receive will depend on the type of cancer you have and how advanced it is.

Some cancer patients will have one treatment, others will have a range of treatments. When you are diagnosed with cancer, it is a new world to learn and it can become overwhelming and confusing. 

Your best place to start is to ask your Doctor or specialist. The following is a guide only and won’t represent your individual case, but it may help you to learn a little about some of the treatments available.


Surgery can be used to prevent, treat, stage (determine how advanced the cancer is), and diagnose cancer. In relation to cancer treatment, surgery is usually performed to remove tumours or as much of the cancerous tissue as possible. Surgery is often used in combination with radiotherapy and/or chemotherapy to make sure that any cancer cells remaining in the body are removed.

For those whose cancer is not treatable, palliative surgery may be an option to relieve pain caused by the cancer if it is obstructing organs or causing bleeding. Palliative surgery is not intended to treat or cure the cancer, or even to prolong life, but more to lessen discomfort.


Radiotherapy (also called radiation therapy or x-ray therapy) uses high energy radiation to destroy cancer cells, shrink tumours or slow down their growth. It works by damaging a cancer cell’s DNA, making it unable to multiply. Cancer cells are highly sensitive to radiation and typically die when treated. Nearby healthy cells can be damaged as well, but are resilient and are able to fully recover.

Radiation therapy is commonly delivered externally (through the skin). However, it can be administered internally (brachytherapy) with the placement of small sources of radioactive material in or near the cancer.

Radiotherapy is used as a curative treatment, often in association with other approaches (e.g. chemotherapy, and/or with surgery); and/or to relieve pain and discomfort associated with incurable disease.


Chemotherapy is almost always used in combination with other treatments; as it’s not a cure for most solid cancers when used alone. Many cancers rely on particular hormones to be able to grow. These cancers can often be controlled by drugs that suppress the body’s hormone production or block the effect of the hormone on tumour cells.

Unlike surgery, chemotherapy affects the entire body, not just a specific part. It works by targeting rapidly multiplying cancer cells. Unfortunately, other types of cells in our bodies also multiply at high rates, like hair follicle cells and the cells that line our stomachs. This is why chemo can cause side effects like hair loss and an upset stomach.

Chemotherapy is most commonly given by pill or intravenously (IV), but can be given in other ways. A single type of chemotherapy, or a combination of drugs, may be prescribed for a specific length of time. Like surgery, chemotherapy can be prescribed alone, in conjunction with radiation therapy or biologic therapy.

Hormone therapy

Hormone therapy involves the surgical removal of hormone producing glands to control cancer growth. These treatments are commonly used for prostate, breast and uterine cancers.

Biologic or targeted therapy

Biologic therapy is a term for drugs that target characteristics of cancerous tumours. Some types of targeted therapies work by blocking the biological processes of tumors that allow tumors to thrive and grow. Other types of therapies cut off the blood supply to the tumor, causing it to basically starve and die because of a lack of blood.

Targeted therapy is used in select types of cancer and is not available for everyone. It is used in conjunction with other cancer treatments.

Clinical trials

Research studies on the latest drugs and therapies against many types of cancer are continuously being conducted. This type of research requires human volunteers to test the safety and effectiveness of new therapies. Volunteers must meet the criteria of each study to participate.

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