Treatment options available today may sound the same as those offered in the past, but as medical advances happen they’re becoming more successful. Many patients have surgery to remove a cancerous growth, for example. Surgery is still often the most effective treatment you can have although, on its own, it’s sometimes not enough to stop our bodies reproducing cells too quickly. After surgery, a pathologist can look at the cells that have been removed and decide what needs to happen next.
Most of us think of chemotherapy when it comes to cancer treatment. Medicine is used to kill cancerous cells, either in tablet form or as an injection into a vein. It’s very effective and there are a lot of powerful chemotherapy drugs available – but they can be even more effective when they work alongside other ‘agents’.
The drug trastuzumab is a good example – it’s used in the treatment of some breast and stomach cancers. Trastuzumab targets a protein called HER2. Excess amounts of HER2 are produced by some cancer cells, which then promote the growth of even more cancer cells (20%–25% of women diagnosed with early breast cancer have HER2-positive cancer). On its own, trastuzumab may not be that helpful, but when it’s combined with chemotherapy it can be a very powerful treatment. In a few cases, an ‘agent’ may be used on its own – the drug imatinib, for example, is useful for treating chronic myeloid leukaemia, which can be resistant to chemotherapy.
What you may not know is that it’s not always necessary to visit a hospital to get this type of treatment. We offer a Healthcare at Home service for example, in which a specialist nurse can visit your home to administer intravenous chemotherapy.
Radiotherapy is used to help ‘shrink’ a tumour before surgery, or to clean up any remaining cancer cells after surgery. With leukaemia and lymphoma, radiotherapy can help to destroy bone-marrow cells before a transplant. There are different forms of radiotherapy – such as brachytherapy, where radiotherapy implants are put inside the body near the tumour – and robotics have changed radiotherapy in recent years.
CyberKnife sounds disturbing, but it’s a radiotherapy machine that can deliver radiation on a robotic arm, closely tracking the area, to treat from more than 100 angles rather than just three to five as a conventional radiotherapy machine would do. It can deliver high doses of radiotherapy very accurately and give a higher daily dose of radiotherapy over one, three or five days, rather than smaller daily doses over six to seven weeks.
What’s right for you?
Talk to your doctors, ask them questions. Their knowledge will help them explain the treatment options available to you. GPs and specialists are learning all the time, which combinations of treatment work best. That’s one of the things our Oncology Condition Management Team is trained to explore with you – which treatment, or combination of treatments could be most appropriate.
We look at the clinical evidence, when we’re providing support to anyone who’s been diagnosed with cancer, to make sure we’re approving the right treatment at the right time – and that you’re only undergoing necessary treatment, rather than procedures or therapies that are less likely to have the results you want.
And, in the future, we hope people will be treated with personalised medicine – the molecular make-up of their cancer will be tested to find out what treatment is right for them. This is already happening to some degree. Women with breast cancer, for example, are already being tested to see which drugs might help them; scientists look for gene mutations in some other forms of cancer so that patients can be treated with specific drugs. It’s in its infancy, but many doctors hope most patients will have tailored treatment in the future.