Cancer medical therapy

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Editor-In-Chief: C. Michael Gibson, M.S., M.D. [1]

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Overview

Cancer can be treated by surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, immunotherapy, monoclonal antibody therapy or other methods. The choice of therapy depends upon the location and grade of the tumor and the stage of the disease, as well as the general state of the patient (performance status). A number of experimental cancer treatments are also under development.

Complete removal of the cancer without damage to the rest of the body is the goal of treatment. Sometimes this can be accomplished by surgery, but the propensity of cancers to invade adjacent tissue or to spread to distant sites by microscopic metastasis often limits its effectiveness. The effectiveness of chemotherapy is often limited by toxicity to other tissues in the body. Radiation can also cause damage to normal tissue.

Because "cancer" refers to a class of diseases, it is unlikely that there will ever be a single "cure for cancer" any more than there will be a single treatment for all infectious diseases.

Medical Therapy

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy (also called radiotherapy, X-ray therapy, or irradiation) is the use of ionizing radiation to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. Radiation therapy can be administered externally via external beam radiotherapy (EBRT) or internally via brachytherapy. The effects of radiation therapy are localised and confined to the region being treated. Radiation therapy injures or destroys cells in the area being treated (the "target tissue") by damaging their genetic material, making it impossible for these cells to continue to grow and divide. Although radiation damages both cancer cells and normal cells, most normal cells can recover from the effects of radiation and function properly. The goal of radiation therapy is to damage as many cancer cells as possible, while limiting harm to nearby healthy tissue. Hence, it is given in many fractions, allowing healthy tissue to recover between fractions.

Radiation therapy may be used to treat almost every type of solid tumor, including cancers of the brain, breast, cervix, larynx, lung, pancreas, prostate, skin, stomach, uterus, or soft tissue sarcomas. Radiation is also used to treat leukemia and lymphoma. Radiation dose to each site depends on a number of factors, including the radiosensitivity of each cancer type and whether there are tissues and organs nearby that may be damaged by radiation. Thus, as with every form of treatment, radiation therapy is not without its side effects.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is the treatment of cancer with drugs ("anticancer drugs") that can destroy cancer cells. In current usage, the term "chemotherapy" usually refers to cytotoxic drugs which affect rapidly dividing cells in general, in contrast with targeted therapy (see below). Chemotherapy drugs interfere with cell division in various possible ways, e.g. with the duplication of DNA or the separation of newly formed chromosomes. Most forms of chemotherapy target all rapidly dividing cells and are not specific for cancer cells, although some degree of specificity may come from the inability of many cancer cells to repair DNA damage, while normal cells generally can. Hence, chemotherapy has the potential to harm healthy tissue, especially those tissues that have a high replacement rate (e.g. intestinal lining). These cells usually repair themselves after chemotherapy.

Because some drugs work better together than alone, two or more drugs are often given at the same time. This is called "combination chemotherapy"; most chemotherapy regimens are given in a combination.

The treatment of some leukaemias and lymphomas requires the use of high-dose chemotherapy, and total body irradiation (TBI). This treatment ablates the bone marrow, and hence the body's ability to recover and repopulate the blood. For this reason, bone marrow, or peripheral blood stem cell harvesting is carried out before the ablative part of the therapy, to enable "rescue" after the treatment has been given. This is known as autologous stem cell transplantation. Alternatively, hematopoietic stem cells may be transplanted from a matched unrelated donor (MUD).

Targeted Therapies

Targeted therapy, which first became available in the late 1990s, has had a significant impact in the treatment of some types of cancer, and is currently a very active research area. This constitutes the use of agents specific for the deregulated proteins of cancer cells. Small molecule targeted therapy drugs are generally inhibitors of enzymatic domains on mutated, overexpressed, or otherwise critical proteins within the cancer cell. Prominent examples are the tyrosine kinase inhibitors imatinib and gefitinib.

Monoclonal antibody therapy is another strategy in which the therapeutic agent is an antibody which specifically binds to a protein on the surface of the cancer cells. Examples include the anti-HER2/neu antibody trastuzumab (Herceptin®) used in breast cancer, and the anti-CD20 antibody rituximab, used in a variety of B-cell malignancies.

Targeted therapy can also involve small peptides as "homing devices" which can bind to cell surface receptors or affected extracellular matrix surrounding the tumor. Radionuclides which are attached to this peptides (e.g. RGDs) eventually kill the cancer cell if the nuclide decays in the vicinity of the cell. Especially oligo- or multimers of these binding motifs are of great interest, since this can lead to enhanced tumor specificity and avidity.

Photodynamic therapy (PDT) is a ternary treatment for cancer involving a photosensitizer, tissue oxygen, and light (often using lasers). PDT can be used as treatment for basal cell carcinoma (BCC) or lung cancer; PDT can also be useful in removing traces of malignant tissue after surgical removal of large tumors.[1]

Immunotherapy

Cancer immunotherapy refers to a diverse set of therapeutic strategies designed to induce the patient's own immune system to fight the tumor. Contemporary methods for generating an immune response against tumours include intravesical BCG immunotherapy for superficial bladder cancer, and use of interferons and other cytokines to induce an immune response in renal cell carcinoma and melanoma patients. Vaccines to generate specific immune responses are the subject of intensive research for a number of tumours, notably malignant melanoma and renal cell carcinoma. Sipuleucel-T is a vaccine-like strategy in late clinical trials for prostate cancer in which dendritic cells from the patient are loaded with prostatic acid phosphatase peptides to induce a specific immune response against prostate-derived cells.

Allogeneic hematopoietic stem cell transplantation ("bone marrow transplantation" from a genetically non-identical donor) can be considered a form of immunotherapy, since the donor's immune cells will often attack the tumor in a phenomenon known as graft-versus-tumor effect. For this reason, allogeneic HSCT leads to a higher cure rate than autologous transplantation for several cancer types, although the side effects are also more severe.

Hormonal Therapy

The growth of some cancers can be inhibited by providing or blocking certain hormones. Common examples of hormone-sensitive tumors include certain types of breast and prostate cancers. Removing or blocking estrogen or testosterone is often an important additional treatment. In certain cancers, administration of hormone agonists, such as progestogens may be therapeutically beneficial.

Symptom Control

Although the control of the symptoms of cancer is not typically thought of as a treatment directed at the cancer, it is an important determinant of the quality of life of cancer patients, and plays an important role in the decision whether the patient is able to undergo other treatments. Although doctors generally have the therapeutic skills to reduce pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, hemorrhage and other common problems in cancer patients, the multidisciplinary specialty of palliative care has arisen specifically in response to the symptom control needs of this group of patients.

Pain medication, such as morphine and oxycodone, and antiemetics, drugs to suppress nausea and vomiting, are very commonly used in patients with cancer-related symptoms. Improved antiemetics such as ondansetron and analogues, as well as aprepitant have made aggressive treatments much more feasible in cancer patients.

Chronic pain due to cancer is almost always associated with continuing tissue damage due to the disease process or the treatment (i.e. surgery, radiation, chemotherapy). Although there is always a role for environmental factors and affective disturbances in the genesis of pain behaviors, these are not usually the predominant etiologic factors in patients with cancer pain. Furthermore, many patients with severe pain associated with cancer are nearing the end of their lives and palliative therapies are required. Issues such as social stigma of using opioids, work and functional status, and health care consumption are not likely to be important in the overall case management. Hence, the typical strategy for cancer pain management is to get the patient as comfortable as possible using opioids and other medications, surgery, and physical measures. Doctors have been reluctant to prescribe narcotics for pain in terminal cancer patients, for fear of contributing to addiction or suppressing respiratory function. The palliative care movement, a more recent offshoot of the hospice movement, has engendered more widespread support for preemptive pain treatment for cancer patients.

Fatigue is a very common problem for cancer patients, and has only recently become important enough for oncologists to suggest treatment, even though it plays a significant role in many patients' quality of life.

Complementary and Alternative

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) treatments are the diverse group of medical and health care systems, practices, and products that are not part of conventional medicine.[2] Oncology, the study of human cancer, has a long history of incorporating unconventional or botanical treatments into mainstream cancer therapy. Some examples of this phenomenon include the chemotherapy agent paclitaxel, which is derived from the bark of the Pacific Yew tree, and ATRA, all-trans retinoic acid, a derivative of Vitamin A that induces cures in an aggressive leukemia known as acute promyelocytic leukemia. Many "complementary" and "alternative" medicines for cancer have not been studied using the scientific method, such as in well-designed clinical trials, or they have only been studied in preclinical (animal or in-vitro) laboratory studies. Many times, "complementary" and "alternative" medicines are supported by marketing materials and "testimonials" from users of the substances. Frequently, when these treatments are subjected to rigorous scientific testing, they are found not to work. A recent example was reported at the 2007 annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology: a Phase III clinical trial comparing shark cartilage extract to placebo in non-small cell lung cancer demonstrated no benefit of the shark cartilage extract, AE-491.[3]

"Complementary medicine" refers to methods and substances used along with conventional medicine, while "alternative medicine" refers to compounds used instead of conventional medicine. A study of CAM use in patients with cancer in the July 2000 issue of the Journal of Clinical Oncology found that 69% of 453 cancer patients had used at least one CAM therapy as part of their cancer treatment.[4]

Some complementary measures include botanical medicine, such as an NIH trial currently underway testing mistletoe extract combined with chemotherapy for the treatment of solid tumors, acupuncture for managing chemotherapy-associated nausea and vomiting and in controlling pain associated with surgery, psychological approaches such as "imaging" or meditation to aid in pain relief or improve mood.[4]

A wide range of alternative treatments have been offered for cancer over the last century. The appeal of alternative cures arises from the daunting risks, costs, or potential side effects of many conventional treatments, or in the limited prospect for cure. Some people resort to these so-called "alternative" forms of treatment in desperation or as a last resort. However, no alternative therapies have been shown in any scientific study to effectively treat cancer. Some express the view that the promotion and sale of certain alternative modalities known to be ineffective constitute quackery.[5]

Contraindicated medications

Generalised malignancy is considered an absolute contraindication to the use of the following medications:

References

  1. Dolmans, DE (2003). "Photodynamic therapy for cancer". Nat Rev Cancer. 3 (5): 380–7. PMID 12724736. Unknown parameter |coauthors= ignored (help); Unknown parameter |month= ignored (help)
  2. "Alternative Cancer Therapies". Minnesota Wellness Directory. Retrieved 2007-11-05.
  3. "ScienceDaily: Shark Cartilage Shows No Benefit As A Therapeutic Agent For Lung Cancer". Retrieved 2007-06-04.
  4. 4.0 4.1 "National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine's Cancer FAQ". Retrieved 2007-03-01.
  5. "A Special Message to Cancer Patients Seeking "Alternative" Treatments". Retrieved 2005-12-16.



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