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How cancer is treated
Cancers are usually treated with surgery, drug therapy and radiation therapy (radiotherapy). The types of drugs (medicines) used for the treatment of cancer include chemotherapy, hormone therapy, targeted therapy and immunotherapy. These treatments may be used on their own, in combination (for example, you may have chemotherapy together with radiation therapy) or one after the other (for example, chemotherapy first, then surgery).
Types of cancer treatments
Surgery – An operation to remove cancer or repair a part of the body affected by cancer.
Drug therapies – Drugs can travel throughout the body. This is called systemic treatment. Drug therapies include:
- chemotherapy – the use of drugs to kill cancer cells or slow their growth
- hormone therapy – treatment that blocks the effects of the body’s natural hormones on some types of cancer
- immunotherapy – treatment that uses the body’s own immune system to fight cancer
- targeted therapy – the use of drugs to attack specific features of cancer cells to stop the cancer growing or spreading.
Radiation therapy – The use of a controlled dose of radiation to kill or damage cancer cells so they cannot grow, multiply or spread.
Because cancer treatment is becoming more tailored to individuals, the treatment you have may be different to the treatment other people have, even when the cancer type is the same. The treatment recommended by your doctor will depend on:
- the type of cancer you have
- where the cancer began (the primary site)
- whether the cancer has spread to other parts of your body (metastatic or secondary cancer)
- specific features of the cancer cell
- your general health, age and treatment preferences
- what treatments are currently available and whether there are any clinical trials suitable for you.
Call Cancer Council 13 11 20 for free booklets and information about different cancer types and their treatments or download the booklets here.
Chemotherapy for children
This information is for adults having chemotherapy, although much of it will also be relevant for children. Talk to your treatment team for specific information about chemotherapy for children, and check out:
Cancer Australia Children’s Cancer – for information about children’s cancers, visit childrenscancer.canceraustralia.gov.au.
Camp Quality – supports children aged 0–15 and their families. Call 1300 662 267 or visit campquality.org.au.
Canteen – supports young people aged 12–25 who have been affected by cancer. Call 1800 226 833 or visit canteen.org.au.
Cancer Council – see our booklet ‘Talking to Kids About Cancer’, or call 13 11 20 for your free copy.
Understanding ChemotherapyDownload PDF
This information is reviewed by
This information was last reviewed August 2022 by the following expert content reviewers: Prof Timothy Price, Medical Oncologist, The Queen Elizabeth Hospital, SA; Graham Borgas, Consumer: Dr Joanna Dewar, Medical Oncologist and Clinical Professor, Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital and The University of Western Australia, WA; Justin Hargreaves, Medical Oncology Nurse Practitioner, Bendigo Health Cancer Centre, VIC; Angela Kritikos, Senior Oncology Dietitian, Dietetic Department, Liverpool Hospital, NSW; Dr Kate Mahon, Director of Medical Oncology, Chris O’Brien Lifehouse, NSW; Georgie Pearson, Consumer; Chris Rivett, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA; Marissa Ryan, Acting Consultant Pharmacist (Cancer Services), Pharmacy Department, Princess Alexandra Hospital, QLD.