Systemic Cancer Treatment


Being diagnosed with cancer can be difficult. From a host of diagnostic tests to dealing with fear, anxiety and, deciding the best treatment options with your doctor can be challenging. Your cancer treatment depends upon several factors such as– type of cancer, its location, affected organ or tissue, the extent of spread, symptoms, age and overall health. Based on these factors, your cancer treatment plan will be customised. Most cancer treatments fall into one of the two types– local or systemic treatments. 

What are Local and Systemic Cancer Treatments?

Local treatment or therapy for cancer are directed to a specific affected area or organ that shows abnormally dividing cancer cells such as the breast, prostate, skin, etc. Surgery, radiation therapy, laser therapy, and cryotherapy are examples of local cancer treatments.

Contrary to this, systemic therapy includes treatments that use substances to travel through the blood and reach distant parts of the body. Chemotherapy, hormone therapy, immune therapy, targeted drug therapy are systemic cancer therapies.

In most systemic therapies, specific anticancer drugs are used to kill or stop the growth of cancer cells. Drugs given in systemic cancer treatments are either given orally or are injected intravenously or subcutaneously. When the systemic therapy drug needs to be given in frequent intervals, implantable devices may be placed intravenously.

Systemic Cancer Treatment Options

Each type of systemic cancer therapy is different and is recommended for certain types of cancers.

  • Chemotherapy

A standard treatment option for cancers, chemotherapy uses cytotoxic drugs that kill cancer cells by interfering with the cell’s DNA. Some chemotherapy drugs interfere with the cell’s multiplication process, preventing the growth and spread of cancer. Chemotherapy can be administered at any stage of cancer treatment and is usually aimed at one or more of the following goals:

  • Curing  the cancer
  • Controlling the spread of cancer
  • Palliative care in advanced cancers

After cancer diagnosis, your doctor will determine the right combination of chemotherapy drugs for you, their dosages, duration of treatment, mode of administration and possible side effects. These decisions depend upon the location and type of your cancer, its extent of spread to other parts of the body, your overall health and fitness. 

Chemotherapy may use a single drug or a combination of drugs that work in different ways to control and treat your cancer. In some cases, chemotherapy may be used alone, while in others, it may be used with other treatments like surgery and radiation therapy. Here are some reasons why chemotherapy may be recommended to treat your cancer:

  • Shrink your tumour before surgery or radiation therapy (Used as neoadjuvant therapy).
  • After surgery or radiation therapy to kill any remaining cancer cells (Used as adjuvant therapy)
  • Along with other drugs to stimulate the body’s defence mechanism to fight and kill cancer cells
  • To treat recurrent cancer cases or when cancer returns even after treatment.
  • Targeted Drug Therapy

This type of biological therapy uses drugs to target cancer cells and kill them. Targeted therapy is used with other treatments like chemotherapy, surgery or radiotherapy. If you have been recommended to undergo targeted therapy as part of your cancer treatment plan, speak to your doctor about how it works, expected side effects and how you can prepare yourself for the procedure. Seek a second opinion if you wish to get a different view on your treatment plant and targeted therapy.

Since targeted therapy targets only the cancer cells and does not harm the surrounding healthy cells, it causes few side effects than traditional cancer treatment options. It is also important to note that not all people have side effects due to targeted drug therapy and everyone’s experience varies. If you experience any side effects following targeted drug therapy, visit your doctor immediately.

Few common side effects observed with targeted drug therapy include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhoea
  • Troubled breathing
  • Headache
  • Cough
  • Fatigue
  • Skin problems like a rash, intense itching, hives, dry and brittle hair
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Bleeding or clotting problems
  • Delayed wound healing
  • Facial swelling
  • Allergic reaction while receiving the drug
  • Immune Therapy

Immune therapy is a type of biological therapy that stimulates a person’s immune system cells to fight cancer. The drugs given as part of immune therapy can either boost the function of immune cells or change the way the immune system works. Immune therapy drugs train the immune system cells to identify and target cancer cells without harming healthy cells. If you need to undergo immune therapy as part of your cancer treatment, discuss how it is done, possible side effects and risks and any other concerns you may have with your doctor.

There are two types of immune therapy:

  • Active: The drugs used in active immune therapy stimulate the body’s anticancer cells to intensify their response to kill cancer cells. This is either done by using a cancer vaccine or with an adjuvant treatment that helps boost immune response.
  • Adoptive: This immune therapy type involves administering monoclonal antibodies in the laboratory. However, these antibodies are not specific to cancer cells and can target certain types of T-cells.

Immune therapy is a newer cancer treatment, and its long-term effects are not fully understood. Discuss with your doctor about this treatment and what you should expect from it. If you are unsure, feel free to seek a second opinion from another specialist and make an informed decision about your treatment plan.

  • Hormone Therapy

Hormones are chemical substances produced by your body to bring about specific functions. Some parts of your body respond to hormones, and cancers of these tissues depend on these hormones to grow. Hormone therapy is useful in treating these cancers. Drugs used as part of hormone therapy travel through the body and target the hormone-producing cancer cells. 

Hormone therapy works in one of the following ways:

  • Stop the body from producing the said hormone
  • Prevent the hormone from attaching to the target cell
  • Alter the hormone to change the way it usually works

This treatment is commonly used for the following cancers:

This treatment is usually used with other local and systemic cancer treatments like surgery and radiation therapy. Hormone therapy can cause side effects like radiotherapy, chemotherapy and other systemic cancer treatments. Discuss the possible side effects of this treatment with your doctor before beginning it.

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