What are the different types of cancer treatment?

Below are five of the ways cancer is treated. Depending on the progression or type of cancer, different methods may or may not be used. To learn about less common (but still effective) treatments, visit the American Cancer Society’s “Types of Cancer Treatment” page.




There are various kinds of cancer-related surgeries, including surgeries to diagnose, stage, debulk (remove most of), and prevent cancer, as well as help reduce the symptoms that cancer may cause.


Typically, this is the first step in cancer treatment. Cancer patients will often first undergo a small-scale surgery, known as a biopsy, before being diagnosed. Surgeons will remove a small sample of tissue from the area and look at it under a microscope to determine whether or not the cells are cancerous. If the cells are indeed cancerous, then the patient will officially be diagnosed with cancer.

Staging surgery

This type of surgery is done to find out the severity and amount of cancer in the body. During this procedure, the area surrounding the cancer, including lymph nodes and neighboring organs, is examined. Staging surgery does not only provide doctors with an idea of the cancer’s stage, but also gives them a good idea as to what kind of treatment is necessary. To learn more about how cancer is staged, click here.

Curative surgery

Curative surgery is usually performed when they are certain that the cancer is isolated and can be removed in one shot. Oftentimes, this type of surgery is paired with radiation or chemotherapy.

Debulking surgery

This procedure removes most, but not all, of the cancer. It is usually conducted when curative surgery would damage surrounding cells or organs. The remainder of the cancer is typically then treated with radiation or chemotherapy.

Palliative surgery

This type of surgery is typically conducted to ease symptoms of advanced cancer. It can be used to correct an issue that causes pain or endangers the patient. While this type of surgery does not cure the cancer alone, it eases pain and discomfort.

Supportive surgery

Like palliative surgery, supportive surgery does not cure the cancer. Instead, it gives ease of access to other types of treatments. During this procedure, objects such as vascular access devices can be implanted. Vascular access devices can be attached to a vein and connected to a drum-shaped device below the skin, allowing blood to be drawn frequently without having to insert a needle into the patient’s skin every time.

Restorative/reconstructive surgery

This procedure is done to change the way a patient looks or restore an organ’s function after major cancer surgery. There are many different types of restorative/reconstructive surgeries, such as breast reconstruction after mastectomies and bone grafts for head cancer patients.

Preventive/prophylactic surgery

True to its name, preventive surgery is performed to ensure that a certain area does not become cancerous. In this case, the tissue does not already have to be cancerous to be removed; instead, the risk for developing cancer in that area is high enough to constitute removal. This treatment does not guarantee cancer prevention, but it does lower risks.



Radiation therapy2

The Mayo Clinic says that radiation therapy is “a type of cancer treatment that uses beams of intense energy to kill cancer cells.” It goes on to say that radiation therapy “damages cells by destroying the genetic material that controls how cells grow and divide. While both healthy and cancerous cells are damaged by radiation therapy, the goal of radiation therapy is to destroy as few normal, healthy cells as possible.”

The most common type of radiation therapy is external beam radiation therapy. During this procedure, a machine aims high-energy beams at a precise point on a patient’s body.

A less common radiation method is brachytherapy3, where radioactive seeds or sources are placed directly inside a patient’s body. Thin catheters are surgery implanted within the tumor and then connected to a machine that carefully shoots iridium pellets inside. At the end of each treatment, the computer removes the pellets. After several treatments, the catheters are removed, leaving the patients radiation-free.

A common misconception is that radiation therapy exposes patients to dangerous levels of radiation. This is not the case. While patients are being exposed to radiation, doctors are careful to keep these levels at a healthy dose.




Chemotherapy is a powerful drug treatment that targets cancer by killing fast-growing cells. Since cancer cells grow and multiply at a much higher rate than healthy cells, chemotherapy is typically very effective in killing cancer.

There are many different kinds of chemotherapy drugs, which are prescribed depending on the severity and type of cancer. They can be used alone or in collaboration with other treatments, such as radiation.



Palliative care5

Palliative care focuses on relieving pain and minimizing symptoms of cancer patients, no matter the stage or diagnosis. Since palliative care is not reserved for cancer patients alone, it can help improve the quality of life of any patient and their loved ones. Like any other treatment, it can be used alone or in tandem with chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery. This treatment does not cure cancer, but it eases much of the pain and discomfort some patients may be experiencing.




Immunotherapy is a treatment that uses a person’s immune system to fight off cancer and other diseases. It does so through a number of methods, including training a patient’s immune system to attack cancer cells or giving that patient new, healthier immune system proteins. Certain types of immunotherapy can also be referred to as biologic therapy or biotherapy.

Within the last several years, immunotherapy has been crucial to treating some types of cancer. While immune treatments across the word are still being fine-tuned, researchers argue that they will greatly impact how cancer is treated in the future.

Like many of these treatments, immunotherapy is used along or alongside other treatments depending on the diagnosis. Immunotherapy works better for certain types of cancer than it does for others.



Will my loved one experience any negative symptoms of cancer treatment?7

Some people will experience side effects during and after their cancer treatment, while others may seem virtually unaffected. There is really no guarantee that a patient will or will not have side effects. Similarly, there is no guarantee that any two patients will have the same side effects—and even if they do, one patient may feel them more strongly than the other. Every treatment (save for palliative care, which lessens symptoms) carries its own risk of symptoms, but it’s not a given that every patient that goes through each treatment will automatically have them. To learn about side effects of cancer treatment and how to manage them, click here.




  1. “How Surgery is Used for Cancer.” American Cancer Society. American Cancer Society, Inc., 2016. Web. 19 Jul. 2016. (Link)
  2. “Radiation therapy.” Mayo Clinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 26 Jul. 2014. Web. 13 Jul. 2016. (Link)
  3. “What is Brachytherapy?” Cancer Treatment Centers of America. Rising Tide, 2016. Web. 19 Jul. 2016. (Link)
  4. “Chemotherapy.” Mayo Clinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 5 May 2014. Web. 13 Jul. 2016. (Link)
  5. “Palliative care.” Mayo Clinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 20 Apr. 2016. Web. 16 Jul. 2016. (Link)
  6. “Immunotherapy.” American Cancer Society. American Cancer Society, Inc., 2016. Web. 19 Jul. 2016. (Link)
  7. “Physical Side Effects of Cancer Treatment.” American Cancer Society. American Cancer Society, Inc., 2016. Web. 18 Jul. 2016. (Link)