Medical Oncology is the specialty of treating cancer with medical therapies. The types of treatments available include chemotherapy, immunotherapy and targeted treatments.
Chemotherapy is the term given to drugs that work to kill cancer cells. This treatment typically kills rapidly growing cells and, as a result, has side effects that are common among cancer patients including:
- Temporary hair thinning or hair loss
- Temporary lowering of the blood counts, which includes white blood cells that help fight infection, platelets that help the blood to clot and red blood cells that carry oxygen and nutrients to organs
- Numbness or tingling of fingers or toes
- Nausea and vomiting
Because cancer cells may have varying degrees of sensitivity to these drugs, not all chemotherapy drugs are effective for all cancers. Hence, the selection of which drugs to use is often based on where your cancer started as well as on things like your general health and well-being.
Immunotherapy is the use of medications or treatments to stimulate your body’s immune system to fight the cancer. Immunotherapy typically uses the body’s own immune system to fight the cancer and therefore has different side effects compared to chemotherapy.
Often, activation of the immune system can cause side effects similar to when one has a flu or infection, and may include:
Only a small percentage of cancers have been shown to be effectively treated by immunotherapy and these include melanoma, kidney cancer and prostate cancer.
Targeted Therapy is the term given to treatments that are directed against a specific aspect of the cancer cell that is required for its survival and growth. In this circumstance, drugs can be developed that block a specific signal in the cancer cell, effectively turning off the cancer cell’s ability to grow or spread. Some of these drugs are highly specific and affect only (or almost only) the cancer cells.
An example of this situation is the treatment of a rare form of leukemia called chronic myeloid leukemia. In this blood cancer, a genetic mutation in the leukemic cells creates a new protein that is responsible for causing the cancer. By creating a drug that turns off that protein, the leukemic cells die and the patient’s bone marrow returns to normal. While highly effective however, this treatment is not a cure because some leukemic cells can go into hibernation and develop additional mutations that make them resistant to the effects of the first drug. Hence, scientists are constantly developing new treatments to try and overcome this resistance.
In solid tumor cancers (cancers like lung cancer, breast cancer, etc) targeted therapies may have either great or limited utility. As we understand more and more about what makes a cancer cell “tick”, we can begin to unravel the options that might identify the critical protein or step in the cell’s growth that is vulnerable to a new treatment.
In many cases, Combination Therapy, where different modalities of treatment are used together is the most effective course of treatment. For example, it is often the case that patients with cancer might receive chemotherapy with radiation therapy at the same time. This might be done because the chemotherapy may make the cancer cell more sensitive to the radiation treatment’s effects. Combinations of chemotherapy with targeted drugs or immunotherapy are also common and can be discussed with your doctor.
Hematologists care for patients who suffer with various blood disorders. The field of Hematology is actually considered to be a subspecialty related to the field of internal medicine, however At Arizona Center for Cancer Care, we have Medical Oncologists who are also specialists in Hematology treating non-cancerous blood disorders such as hemophilia and malignancies such as lymphoma and leukemia.
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