Hesperian Health Guides

Cancer Treatments

Cancer treatments are used both to try to cure cancer, and also to help a person live longer with cancer and have a better quality of life.

The type of cancer treatment depends on the kind of cancer a person has, whether it is only in one part of the body or has spread to other parts, and how healthy the person is. Treatment methods may be used alone or in combination, or another treatment method might be used if the first does not work well enough. There are 4 main types of cancer treatments.

  1. Surgery — removes cancer cells from the body.
  2. Chemotherapy — uses medicines to kill cancer cells.
  3. Radiation — uses beams of high energy to kill cancer cells.
  4. Hormone therapy — uses medicines to stop hormones that make cancer worse.

While treatments may have uncomfortable side effects, they are often the only way to destroy the cancer, allowing the person to get well.

Some methods cost more than others, and some are not available everywhere. So unfortunately, inequality also determines treatment.

Just as cancer affects people differently, so do treatments for cancer. For example, some people get bad side effects while others tolerate treatment better. Or the same treatment may be effective in fighting one person’s cancer, but may not work so well for someone else. Treatments affect people’s feelings and mental health differently too.


When cancer treatment is successful, the cancer is no longer detected in the body. The word “remission” is used instead of cure, because there is still a chance that the cancer may return later. A person can be in partial remission when treatment has stopped the cancer from growing, but the tumor is still there.

You will need regular checkups after cancer treatment. How often depends on the kind of cancer.

a man with a bandage on his cheek.


When cancer is found in only one part of the body, it may be possible to successfully remove it through surgery. Sometimes small cancers can be cut out in a local health center. Other cancers require hospital stays for surgery and the person will need more time to recover.

Sometimes surgery is combined with chemotherapy or radiation to kill any remaining cancer that was not removed by surgery.


Some cancers can be treated with medicines. This is called chemotherapy. Chemotherapy medicines are often expensive although many have become much more affordable in recent years. National health programs should make these medicines available so more people can be treated and survive cancer.

Chemotherapy can be used to:

  • stop the cancer from spreading to other parts of the body.
  • slow the cancer’s growth or shrink the cancer.
  • kill the cancer.
a woman with receiving an IV while a man with a baby looks on.

Sometimes chemotherapy is the only treatment needed, but often it is used in combination with another treatment method. For example, chemotherapy may be used to shrink a tumor to make it easier to remove with surgery. Or it may be used after surgery or radiation to kill any cancer that remains.

Chemotherapy medicines come in different forms. They may be pills or liquid taken by mouth. Most often, chemotherapy medicines are given in the vein (IV). It is also common to use more than one chemotherapy medicine.

How often chemotherapy is needed, and for how long, depends on the kind of cancer and the chemotherapy medicine. It also depends on how your body reacts to the treatment, which can vary from person to person. Chemotherapy can be given daily, weekly, or monthly, but there are usually breaks between treatment cycles to allow your body to rest and recover.

Chemotherapy is good at killing cancer cells, but it also affects healthy cells. Healthy cells can usually recover, but chemotherapy can be hard on the body. Chemotherapy commonly causes uncomfortable side effects:

  • Nausea (see Helping reduce nausea).
  • Irritation inside the nose and mouth. There might be redness, sores, and sometimes burning pain in the mouth and throat. The person’s sense of taste may change, and food can taste like metal or overly bitter or sweet. To reduce mouth sores, rinse your mouth several times a day with a mixture of: 1 cup of safe or boiled water cooled to just warm, ¼ teaspoon baking soda, and ⅛ teaspoon salt. Then rinse with clean water.
  • Tiredness. Rest when you need to. A 15-minute walk every day may give you more energy. Drinking plenty of water and other liquids can help.
  • Hair loss. Chemotherapy kills cancer and other fast-growing cells, including hair cells. Hair will grow back when treatment ends.

Side effects may get worse a few days after treatment, but they all get better with time.
Take care of yourself during chemotherapy treatment:

  • Rest when you need to.
  • Eat healthy foods.
  • Avoid alcohol, which may affect the chemotherapy drugs and your liver.

Radiation (radiotherapy)

Like chemotherapy, radiation kills cancer cells and other fast-growing cells. Radiation may be used to remove the cancer, or to slow the growth of cancer. Radiation may be used alone or in combination with surgery or chemotherapy.

Radiation machines send a beam of high energy to kill cancer cells. Radiation may be a good treatment when the cancer is found early, before it has spread to other areas in the body (metastasized). This is because, unlike chemotherapy, radiation is targeted to a specific area and does not affect the whole body. Radiation treatments may rid the body of cancer temporarily or permanently.

a woman in a radiation treatment machine.

A radiation treatment is not painful. You will lie on a treatment table underneath the radiation machine for about 15 to 30 minutes. The number of treatments and how often you receive them depend on the kind of cancer and the size of the tumor.

Common side effects of radiation:

  • Tiredness. Rest when you need to. A 15-minute walk every day may give you more energy. Drinking plenty of water and other liquids can help.
  • Loss of appetite. It may be easier to eat many small meals rather than a few large ones. If eating is painful, try soups or soft foods that are easy to eat.
  • Skin changes. The skin over the area that was treated may become pink or darker in color. It also may begin to hurt, feel burned, dry or itchy, show mild swelling, or develop a rash or blisters.
  • Nausea (see Helping reduce nausea).

Side effects will go away with time.

Take care of yourself during radiation treatment:

  • Rest when you need to.
  • Eat healthy foods like fresh fruits and vegetables, protein foods, and whole grains.
  • Care for the skin in the area that was treated. Gently clean the skin every day. Avoid anything that may irritate the skin, such as tight clothing, powder, or perfumes.
  • Protect your skin from the sun by wearing a hat and loose clothing that covers your entire body.

Hormone therapy

Woman holding her head and looking sick.

Medicines that affect the body’s hormones can cause a tumor to shrink or slow cancer growth. This is called hormone therapy. These medicines usually come as pills, but some are injected. Hormone therapy can be combined with one or more of the other common cancer treatments: surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation.

Possible side effects of hormone therapy:

  • Tiredness
  • Weight gain
  • Memory problems
  • Changes in mood or depression
  • Suddenly feeling very hot, and sweating
  • Lack of desire for sex

Helping reduce nausea

Feeling nauseous can be a side effect of chemotherapy or radiation treatments. Besides making you feel bad, if nausea stops you from eating, you will not get enough nutrition. Your clinic may have medicines to reduce the nausea. Some people need to try different medicines before they find one that works for them. Also try these other ways to reduce nausea and to feel better on the days and weeks you have the treatments.

  • Eat crackers, dry bread, dry tortillas, dry chapatis, or other grain food to calm your stomach. Avoid any foods that make you feel worse, especially fried or spicy foods.
  • Eat many small meals instead of 2 or 3 larger ones, and take small sips of liquid often. Drinking more water than usual during the day will help.
  • Sit up for a while right after eating instead of lying down.
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  • Use acupressure to relieve nausea. Press on the spot 3 fingers above the wrist between the 2 tendons on the inside of the arm, moving your finger in small circles. Press firmly but not hard enough to hurt. If acupressure is going to help, it will start to feel better in a few minutes.
Woman drinks hot liquid in cup.
  • Drink mint or ginger tea. To make mint tea, put a teaspoon of mint leaves in a cup of boiled water. Let the tea sit for a few minutes before drinking. To make ginger tea, boil crushed or sliced ginger root in water for at least 15 minutes.
  • Where marijuana is legal, some people use it to lessen nausea or make you feel like eating.

On treatment days, some people eat a small snack before treatment. Others find that eating or drinking right before or after treatment makes them feel sick so they avoid this. During treatment, try chewing a slice of fresh ginger if nausea starts. After treatment, wait at least 1 hour before you eat or drink.

Other cancer treatments

There are many other methods that people use to try to cure cancer or to help ease the effects of cancer. These include spiritual healing, hypnosis, meditation, herbal remedies, special diets, exercise, acupuncture, and massage. Often these methods help people receiving chemotherapy or radiation because they help the body recover faster and reduce side effects from cancer or cancer treatment. Talk with a health worker about which methods go well together. These methods also may lessen the anxiety or depression that is common for people with cancer so they can make you feel a lot better. And they can help a person feel more comfortable if he is dying from cancer, no longer seeking treatment, or chooses not to get other treatment. None of these methods has been proven to cure cancer when used by itself.

Unfortunately, there are people, including doctors, who take advantage of the hope or desperation of people with cancer and claim they have special or secret treatments to cure cancer. Sadly, because of these false promises, people waste money or delay getting a treatment that would help them more.

This page was updated:25 Nov 2019