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NC Department of Health and Human Services
N.C. DPH Chronic Disease and Injury Section
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North Carolina Cancer Prevention and Control Branch

Cancer Treatment

There are many ways cancer can be treated. Some treatments are used alone and some are used together. Cancer treatments or therapies include:

  • Surgery
  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiation
  • Hormones
  • Molecularly targeted treatments
  • Biological treatments that can change the immune system

After diagnosis, a treatment plan is discussed and determined depending upon various factors, such as the stage of cancer, the patient’s medical condition, and the long-term goals of the patient and family.

Treatment Phases

There are four potential treatment phases.

  1. Diagnostic and treatment phase: This phase starts with the cancer diagnosis and is followed by how the cancer will be treated. All cancer treatment plans should include palliative care from time of diagnosis. There will be side effects of treatment in this phase, but palliative care can help take care of these problems. Palliative care might be pain control and/or taking care of symptoms.

    This is usually the time when cancer patients usually get second opinions before starting a treatment plan. Clinical trials may be offered, or this is the time to learn about available clinical trials.
  2. Maintenance phase: This phase keeps the cancer under control while the treatment is working to get rid of any cancer cells that are left in the body. For some cancers, treatment may continue but it is not as much or as often. There will be side effects in this phase, but palliative care can help take care of these problems.
  3. Follow‐up care: Follow‐up care is the time after the treatment ends and it is thought the cancer has been eliminated. During this time, the survivor may begin to recover from the short‐term effects of the treatment. The doctors will watch for any recurrent cancer or a new cancer and will watch for any long time or late problems.
  4. Recurrence: Recurrence happens only if/when the cancer returns. Recurrence does not happen for every cancer patient. If the cancer returns a new treatment plan will be made or clinical trials may be looked into. A newer treatment is often able to control the cancer for a longer amount of time. If it is advanced cancer, an increase in palliative care may be needed to take care of the problems. Hospice care may be needed.

Side Effects of Cancer Treatment

Once treatment has begun there may be some side effects. Some of the side effects may linger for weeks, months, or years after treatment ends.

However, many of the side effects of cancer treatment resolve as a patient goes through treatment or when treatment ends.

Short-Term Side Effects

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Anemia (a low blood count that cane make a person tired and short of breath)
  • An increased chance of getting an infection
  • Fatigue (weak feeling of the whole body)
  • Hair loss

Long-Term Side Effects

Other side effects of treatment may persist after treatment ends. Two of these may be:

  • Fatigue
  • Damage to nerves that can cause numbness, tingling, prickly feelings, soreness when touched, and/or muscle weakness

Late Onset Side Effects

There are some side effects that may begin only after treatment ends. Lymphedema (swelling) is one of these. Other late onset side effects may be:

  • Pain
  • Problems remembering
  • Problems with sex
  • Other long‐term effects may be a 2nd cancer, heart disease, or osteoporosis

Life Impact of Cancer Treatment

There are many issues that may arise during the four potential stages of cancer.

  • Physical changes are the changes in the body that can be caused by the cancer, by the treatment, or by both. These changes can include: pain, fatigue, nausea, hair loss, and other problems.
  • Psychological effects of a cancer diagnosis can be fear, stress, depression, anger, and anxiety. Survivors might have feelings of helplessness, lack of self‐control, or changes to self‐esteem and self‐image; however, some survivors find new meaning to life and to relationships during their cancer treatment.
  • Social changes may occur as a result of physical and/or psychological changes from the cancer. These changes may impact how others react to the survivor at work or at home.
  • Spirituality may be affected as the survivor goes through cancer diagnosis, treatment, and survivorship. Some survivors increase or change their thinking about their faith or spiritual beliefs.
  • Work issues may arise. There are federal and state laws that can protect workers with cancer from what might happen at work. Most working cancer survivors need some changes at work during treatment and sometimes after.
  • The survivor or the family may experience household issues, such as money problems with the cost of health care and reduced income.
  • Survivors may need legal help getting information about laws and regulations on insurance, assets, and employment.
  • Long-term physical problems that might persist after treatment include how the body moves, how the body works, and how the body looks.
  • Late onset problems are changes that may turn up months or years later.

Cancer Branch Information