Treatments of cancer
Cancer treatments are being continually developed. Increasingly more effective and better-targeted treatments are available. As treatment has developed, the outcomes have improved. Treatment outcomes in Finland are outstanding by international comparisons.
The purpose of cancer treatments is that
- cancer improves
- the disease is brought under control
- cancer recurrence is prevented, and
- the symptoms caused by the tumour are alleviated.
The main forms of cancer treatment are cancer surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, hormone therapy and targeted therapy. There are a variety of different cancer drugs available. They are usually used in combination.
Cancer therapy is personalised, which is why treatments can vary. The choice of treatment is influenced by the location of the tumour, distribution, cell type and the patient’s overall condition as well as possible other illnesses. The advantages and disadvantages for the patient of different treatments are always assessed beforehand. A doctor decides on the kind of treatment, but as a patient you can ask questions and express your own wishes on the matter. The doctor must explain to you the grounds for and content of the treatment recommendation.
Many cancers develop slowly over several years. The delay of a few weeks in starting cancer treatment is usually insignificant in terms of the treatment’s final outcome. With some cases of acute leukaemia or malignant brain tumours, though, even a fairly short delay in treatment can be important.
Cancer therapy is a mental and physical strain on patients. Its side effects commonly include nausea, hair loss, reduced blood count, fatigue and swelling of the lower limbs. The efficacy of cancer therapy (response to treatment) and the adverse effects caused by the treatments are closely monitored.
Cancer treatment in practice
Patients receive cancer therapy in hospital. As tests progress, the patient is transferred from care at a health centre to specialised care.
Cancer treatment is always personalised. Treatment is usually carried out under the supervision of an oncologist at an oncology clinic or ward. Treatment plans involve specialists from different medical fields. Rare and particularly difficult cases of cancer are treated at certain university hospitals. Children with cancer are usually treated at the children’s clinics of university hospitals.
Post-treatment monitoring is carried out on an individual basis. At first, patients are usually under specialist observation and then later at a health centre.
In cases of incurable cancer, at some point patients are transferred for specialised treatment at health centres. Individual plans for symptomatic treatment are drawn up for patients.
In addition to receiving health centre care, patients may receive palliative, or supportive, care at health care units at the oncology clinics.
Palliative care is provided at individual hospices, health centre palliative care units or hospitals.
Different types of cancer treatment
Cancer treatment often involves combination therapy. Combination therapy refers to the combined use of many treatment forms, such as surgery, radiotherapy and drugs. The purpose of combination therapy is to increase the patient’s scope for recovery.
Adjuvant therapy is used to supplement surgery. Radiotherapy or chemotherapy provided following surgery are forms of adjuvant therapy. Adjuvant therapy ensures that cancer cells are destroyed, thereby improving the patient’s prognosis.
Supportive cancer therapy alleviates symptoms caused by cancer or its treatment. It can improve the patient’s wellbeing during and after the period of treatment. For instance, the anti-nausea medication used during chemotherapy is a form of supportive therapy. Cancer pain treatment is another form of supportive therapy.
Palliative care alleviates the patient’s physical and psychological symptoms to improve the quality of life. Palliative care is used in cancer treatment or to treat the symptoms arising from cancer treatment. Palliative care can be provided for months or even years.
The most common symptoms treated in palliative care are pain, constipation, nausea, confusion and fatigue. Palliative care is provided in tandem with curative treatment immediately following cancer diagnosis.
If cancers cannot be cured, treatment focuses on the patients’ symptoms so that their quality of life can be as good as possible. For patients with metastatic cancer, palliative care is of central importance.
The procedures used in symptomatic therapy may in part be the same as those used in curative treatment. For instance, radiotherapy can reduce metastases, which helps patients feel better. Treatment also seeks to alleviate patients’ psychological symptoms, in addition to physical ones, such as the fears and anxieties that come toward the end of life.
Terminal care refers to the treatment provided to a critically ill person in a situation where curative treatment has been discontinued. Dying patients are not left to cope with their condition even though the progress of their disease can no longer be influenced.
The aim of terminal care is to provide constant and safe symptomatic treatment that respects your dignity and individuality. Terminal care also takes into account patients’ loved ones.
The decision to stop curative treatment is made by a specialist physician. Transferring to terminal care requires a referral from the physician handling treatment. Terminal care can be provided by home nursing or a hospice.