Oncology is the branch of medicine concerned with the study, diagnosis and treatment of cancer. It provides insight into how tumours, carcinomas, sarcomas and metastases, etc. form and establishes the best methods to fight these types of cancer, particularly by using the following treatment strategies:
Oncology involves multidisciplinary care: it requires the expertise of a wide range of specialists, including radiologists, pathologists, oncologists, surgeons and radiotherapists, who discuss and review each patient case during weekly team meetings, known as Tumour Boards, in order to determine the best possible treatment option together. Supportive care is provided alongside treatment and focuses on coordinating support to manage challenges related to the disease.
Chemotherapy is a type of cancer treatment that uses chemical substances, known as cytotoxic drugs, to kill cancer cells or prevent them from multiplying. There are more than a hundred different cytotoxic drugs currently available and the drug is selected depending on the type of cancer and the stage of the disease. Drugs are often combined to achieve more effective results and can be given in the form of intravenous infusions, injections or tablets. Some types of cancer, such as leukaemia and lymphoma, are primarily treated with chemotherapy. For other types of cancer, chemotherapy may be used after surgery and/or radiotherapy (adjuvant chemotherapy) to kill any residual cancer cells. In some cases, chemotherapy may be given before surgery (neoadjuvant chemotherapy) to shrink the tumour and increase the chances of a successful operation. Chemotherapy targets cancer cells, however, it also affects healthy cells. This is partly explained by the temporary side effects of chemotherapy, including digestive problems, a weakened immune system, anaemia, hair loss and fatigue. Side effects vary in intensity depending on the drug and how each patient reacts. When treatment is no longer an option, chemotherapy may be used to slow and control the spread of the disease while helping to ease the patient’s pain and improve their quality of life.
Hormone therapy is a type of cancer treatment that slows or stops the activity/production of hormones that stimulate the growth of cancer. It is only used to treat ‘hormone-dependent’ or ‘hormone-sensitive’ tumours. Tumours are often hormone dependent in cancers such as breast cancer and uterine cancer: before prescribing hormone therapy, the tumour tissue is tested to check if it is sensitive to the effect of hormones. However, prostate cancer is always sensitive to the male sex hormone (testosterone); therefore, a prior test is not necessary. Anti-hormone drugs are given in the form of injections or tablets. Hormone therapy is a long-term treatment that usually stretches over several months or years. It is also combined with other treatment methods.
Instead of specifically targeting the tumour, immunotherapy is a type of cancer treatment that uses drugs to boost or activate the body’s own natural defences to fight cancer (immune response). Immunotherapy is increasingly used to treat cancer: the drugs used help the immune system to recognise and eliminate cancer cells. In most cases, general immunotherapy is used, however, in rare cases, local immunotherapy may be used.
Targeted therapies are a group of drugs that target specific processes within cancer cells. These drugs block the growth of the tumour or slow the cancer metabolism. They target specific characteristics in or on the surface of cancer cells and therefore only work if these characteristics are present in the cancer cells of the patient receiving treatment.
Immunotherapy and targeted therapies may be able to successfully treat certain types of cancer, however, they are always used as complementary therapies alongside standard treatments, for example chemotherapy.
Cancer care is more than just treating the disease. Supportive care is defined as all of the care and support that cancer patients require throughout the disease. It addresses patients’ needs during and after treatment and helps them cope with various issues, including pain, fatigue, nutritional problems, digestive problems, respiratory and genitourinary problems, motor issues, disabilities and teeth problems. Supportive care also helps patients with social difficulties, psychological trauma and concerns about body image as well as end-of-life care. Supportive care is provided alongside any other specific cancer treatments that may have been initiated.