cancer, in medicine: Treatment


Developments in the treatment of cancer have led to greatly improved survival and quality of life for cancer patients in the past three decades. Traditionally, cancer has been treated by surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy. In recent years immunotherapy has been added to that list. New drugs and techniques are constantly being researched and developed, such as antiangiogenic agents (e.g., angiostatin and endostatin), genetically engineered monoclonal antibodies, retinoid agents, and therapeutic vaccines (agents that stimulate the immune system to attack cancerous cells).

For most kinds of cancer, surgery remains the primary treatment. It is most effective if the cancer is caught while still localized. Some cancers that spread to the lymph system are sometimes treated by extensive surgical removal of tissue, but the trend is toward more conservative procedures (see mastectomy). Cryosurgery, the use of extreme cold, and electrodessication, the use of extreme heat, are also being used to kill cancerous tissue and the surrounding blood supply. If the cancer has metastasized, surgery is often replaced by or followed by radiation therapy (which is a localized therapy) and chemotherapy (which is a system-wide therapy).

For some cancers, radiation therapy—either from an external beam or from implanted radioactive pellets—is the primary treatment. The usual forms are X rays and gamma rays. Use of radioactive elements specific for particular target organs, such as radioactive iodine specific for the thyroid gland, is effective in treating malignancies of those organs.

Cytotoxic chemotherapy is used as a primary treatment for some cancers, such as lymphomas and leukemias or as an addition to surgery or radiation therapy. Cytotoxic drugs (drugs that are toxic to cells) are aimed at rapidly proliferating cells and interfere with nucleic acid and protein synthesis in the cancer cell, but they are often toxic to normal rapidly proliferating cells, such as bone marrow and hair cells. Often a combination of cytotoxic drugs is used. Drugs that reduce side effects may be added to the treatment, such as antinausea agents.

Hormonal chemotherapy is based upon the fact that the growth of some malignant tumors (specifically those of the reproductive organs) is influenced by reproductive hormones. Tamoxifen is a naturally occurring estrogen inhibitor used to prevent breast cancer recurrences. Flutamide is sometimes used in prostate cancer to inhibit androgen uptake. Sex-hormone related drugs such as DES and tamoxifen, which may be carcinogenic under some conditions, have proved to be protective under others.

More specifically targeted drug therapies have begun to be explored as a better understanding of the molecular biology of individual cancers has been developed. Such drugs are designed to kill only cancer cells while having fewer side effects. Gleevec (STI-571), which is used to treat chronic myelogenous leukemia and some other cancers, inhibits certain kinase receptors that become hyperactive in cancer cells, resulting in the cells' rapid reproduction.

Immunotherapy (sometimes called biological therapy) uses substances that help the body mobilize its immune defenses. Some attack the tumor itself, while others bolster the body's ability to withstand conventional chemotherapy treatment. Other new or experimental therapies include drugs that inhibit angiogenesis and photodynamic therapy, in which a patient is given a drug to make the tumor light-sensitive, after which the tumor is exposed to bright laser light. The best choice of treatment will increasingly be influenced by the growing field of molecular pathology, in which characteristics of individual cancers (e.g., virulence or resistance to a particular treatment) can be revealed by analysis of their genetic characteristics rather than by the microscope.

Besides treatment of the cancer itself, progress has been made in the management of the chronic pain that often accompanies cancer and in the education of patients and physicians in such techniques as biofeedback, acupuncture, and meditation and the appropriate use of narcotics and other medications. Because of improvements in early detection and treatment, many more people are now living with cancer. Over half of all people with cancer now survive for five or more years.

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