Treatment options for cancer

Not all treatments for cancer are available in the Northern Territory (NT). 

Your cancer treatment will depend on the type and stage of cancer.

This page explains the most common forms of treatments and their possible side effects, although these can be different for each patient.

You should discuss your treatment options and side effects with your doctor. 

Side effects of treatment

You may notice side effects within a few hours after treatment or a few weeks later.

It is common to experience nausea within a few hours after receiving chemotherapy, but you may lose your hair one or two weeks later.

Surgery

This involves the partial or total removal of a tumour or body part affected by cancer. Each cancer type has its own name that refers to the removal of the tumour. 

Many cases can be treated in the NT. You may have to travel interstate for complex cases.

Side effects of surgery

Side effects depend on which part of the body is affected, where the tumour is and how complicated it is to remove.

You may have pain where you have been operated on. 

You may also have infections and reactions to anesthetic.

Lymphoedema, which is swelling in one or more areas of the body, is a common side effect if your lymph nodes have been removed. 

Go to the Australian Lymphology Association website for more information.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill and slow the growth of cancer cells. 

The drugs circulate through the blood stream and attack the dividing cancerous cells to prevent them from multiplying.

There are many different types of chemotherapy drugs that can be used alone or in combination, depending on the type and stage of cancer.

There are many ways of administrating chemotherapy and the appropriate drug, dose and route will be decided by the your consultant/specialist.

This treatment is available in Darwin at the Alan Walker Cancer Care Centre.

Side effects of chemotherapy

You may have nausea and vomiting before treatment which can worsen after treatment and last for days.

Other side effects include hair loss and mouth ulcers.

It can also temporarily affect your vision, hearing and balance.

Radiotherapy

Radiation with high-frequency x-ray beams directed at the tumour to destroy dividing cancer cells so they cannot multiply. 

Radiotherapy is used to treat both primary cancer and cancer that has spread to other parts of the body.

Radiotherapy focuses on cancer cells, however surrounding tissue that is also exposed to radiation may be affected. For example, skin may appear sunburnt.

You can have this treatment at the Alan Walker Cancer Care Centre in Darwin.

Side effects of radiotherapy

Short term side effects are localised and depend on which parts of the body are receiving treatment.

They can include any of the following:

  • lethargy
  • headaches
  • drowsiness
  • nausea
  • hair loss
  • reddening of the skin near the treatment area.

Long terms effects may include any of the following:

  • reduced hair growth
  • skin and tissue thickening
  • infertility
  • reduced thyroid function
  • the possibility of secondary cancer.

Hormone therapy

Hormones are chemicals released by some cells (for example the thyroid) that affect cells in other parts of the body. 

Only a small amount of hormone is required to alter cell metabolism. It is also a chemical messenger that transports a signal from one cell to another.

Hormone therapy works by controlling, removing or reducing the production of a stimulating hormone, or preventing the hormone from stimulating cancer cells.

Hormone therapy can be used in conjunction with surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy. 

It can be given to you by a tablet, injection or a drip. 

Side effects of hormone therapy

Side effects depend on your age.

For men, side effects can include any of the following:

  • weight gain
  • impotence
  • infertility
  • hot flushes
  • depression
  • fatigue
  • low sex drive
  • osteoporosis
  • breast tenderness
  • erection problems
  • reduced bone substance and muscle mass.

For females, side effects may include any of the following:

  • increased risk of blood clots
  • weight gain
  • irregular vaginal bleeding or discharge
  • low sex drive
  • hot flushes
  • osteoporosis
  • tenderness or pain in joints or bones
  • generalised swelling.

Steroid therapy

Steroids are produced naturally in the body but can also be artificially made.

For cancer treatment, corticosteroid drugs are used to improve appetite and reduce pain, nausea or swelling to the brain.

These drugs may be given to you by tablets, injection or a drip.

Steroid therapy is usually given for a short period of time.

Side effects of steroid therapy

Temporary side effects include any of the following:

  • increased appetite
  • mood swings
  • feelings of restlessness
  • sleeping problems
  • increased thirst
  • weight gain
  • muscle weakness.

Long term side effects may lead to any of the following:

  • increased facial hair
  • increased blood glucose levels
  • puffiness in cheeks, hands, neck and feet
  • increased risk of infection. 

Stem cell and bone marrow transplants

Stem cells are immature, early-stage blood cells from which other blood and body cells develop. 

They are found in bone marrow, blood stream or umbilical cord blood. Stem cells assist with immunity and prevent excessive bleeding.

Stem cell transplant is a treatment method where immature healthy blood cells are introduced into your body to resupply those that have been destroyed by cancer treatment. 

A stem cell transplant can assist your body by making healthy white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets. This reduces the risk of infections, anaemia and bleeding.

Depending on the source of the stem cells, the procedure is called a bone marrow transplant, a peripheral blood stem cell or a cord blood transplant. 

Stem cell transplants can use cells from your own body, known as an autologous stem cell transplant, or use stem cells from related or unrelated donors, known as an allogenic stem cell transplant.

Side effects of stem cell and bone marrow transplants

Because of the high doses of drugs, your immune system is weakened and susceptible to infections for a month or more.

Complications for allogenic transplants can happen. The donor tissue may be rejected and cause reactions that lead to jaundice, rashes and diarrhoea. This is known as acute graft versus host disease.

These symptoms usually settle with treatment or may persist for many months and become chronic acute graft versus host disease.

The chronic disease can cause any of the following:

  • thick or dry skin
  • skin discolouration
  • dryness of the mouth and eyes
  • difficulty in absorbing food.

Complementary and alternative therapies

This includes yoga, acupuncture or art therapy and focuses on your physical and emotional well being.

They may be used with conventional therapies.

Some alternative therapies such as vitamin infusions or diets may be recommended in place of traditional cancer therapies.

You should discuss the options with your doctor. There is little research-based evidence about how effective alternative therapies are.

Side effects of complementary and alternative therapies

This depends on the therapy you are receiving.

In some cases, complementary therapies can decrease the side effects of conventional treatment, such as nausea.

Last updated: 27 June 2017