How is cancer treated?

There are several types of cancer treatment. It’s common for a combination of treatments to be used. You may be offered treatment as part of a clinical trial.

Treatments include:

  • surgery – an operation to remove the cancer is the main treatment for many types of cancer
  • radiotherapy – high energy X-rays are used to destroy the cancer cells
  • chemotherapy – uses anti-cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells
  • hormonal therapy – reduces the level of hormones in the body or blocks hormones from reaching cancer cells
  • targeted therapies – destroy cancer cells, usually by interfering with the cancer’s ability to grow
  • stem cell or bone marrow treatments – allow high doses of anti-cancer treatment to be given or are used to give the person a new immune system to fight the cancer

You may also be given supportive treatments to treat side effects. Supportive treatments include:

  • treatments to treat or reduce the risk of infection
  • steroids
  • blood transfusions
  • bone strengthening treatments

Some people use complementary therapies, such as massage or relaxation therapies, as well as conventional medical treatments. Complementary therapies do not claim to treat cancer. But, some people may use them to boost their physical or emotional health or to relieve symptoms or side effects. Always tell your doctor if you are thinking about using complementary therapies. Although many are safe to use alongside conventional treatment, some may not be suitable.

Clinical trials research new treatments to see if they are more effective than the standard treatments already available. This may be testing a new drug, researching different ways of carrying out an operation or a new way of giving treatment. They aim to find the treatments that work best and cause the fewest side effects.


Surgery is one of the main treatments for cancer and can be used for lots of reasons. Surgery can be used to:

  • diagnose cancer
  • remove cancer
  • find out how big the cancer is and if it has spread to other parts of the body
  • control symptoms of cancer
  • restore parts of the body (for example breast reconstruction)

Surgery can cure many cancers.

The type of surgery you have will depend on the cancer that is treated. Your doctor or nurse can give you specific information about your surgery.


Radiotherapy uses high-energy rays to treat disease. It can be given both externally and internally.

External radiotherapy aims high-energy X-rays at the affected area using a large machine.

Internal radiotherapy involves having radioactive material placed inside the body. You can be given radiotherapy for different reasons. Doctors can give radiotherapy to try and destroy a tumour and cure the cancer. This is called curative treatment. It may be used with other treatments, such as surgery or chemotherapy.

If it’s not possible to cure the cancer, doctors may give you radiotherapy to help relieve symptoms you have. This is called palliative treatment.

Radiotherapy works by destroying cancer cells in the area that’s being treated. Normal cells can also be damaged by radiotherapy, which may cause side effects. Cancer cells cannot repair themselves after radiotherapy, but normal cells usually can.

The type of radiotherapy you’re given will depend on the type of cancer you have and your individual situation.


Chemotherapy uses anti-cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells. The drugs also affect healthy cells, causing side effects such as feeling sick or an increased risk of infection.

Unlike cancer cells these cells usually repair themselves. Most side effects improve when treatment is finished.

Chemotherapy can be given as a main treatment or after other treatments to reduce the risk of the cancer coming back. Or, you may have it to shrink a cancer before surgery or radiotherapy. It is sometimes used at the same time as radiotherapy (chemoradiation).

Chemotherapy is also given to control cancer that has spread and to relieve symptoms.

The chemotherapy you have will depend on different things, such as the cancer type, the risk of it coming back, or whether it has spread. Some people have tests during treatment to check if the cancer is responding to chemotherapy.

You usually have chemotherapy by injection or a ‘drip’ into a vein, or as tablets. Sometimes, it’s given in other ways, such as into the spine or into the bladder, depending on the type of cancer.

Targeted therapies

Targeted therapies (sometimes known as biological therapies) can be used to stimulate the immune system, control the growth of cancer cells or to overcome side effects of treatment.

There are several types of targeted treatment:

  • monoclonal antibodies
  • cancer growth inhibitors
  • angiogenesis inhibitors
  • vaccines

Hormonal therapy

Hormones are substances produced naturally in the body. They act as chemical messengers and influence the growth and activity of cells. Hormones are produced by a number of different organs and glands, which together are known as the endocrine system.

Hormonal therapies work by altering the production or activity of particular hormones in the body. They are most commonly used to treat breast cancer and prostate cancer. The type of hormone therapy given depends on the type of cancer being treated.

There are several different types of hormonal therapy. They are usually given as either tablets or injections. The side effects will vary and depend on the individual drug. General side effects can include tiredness, headaches, feeling sick and muscle or joint aches.

Stem cells

Stem cells are blood cells at their earliest stage of development. All blood cells develop from stem cells. Bone marrow is a spongy material inside the bones. The bone marrow is where stem cells are made.

There are 2 different types of stem cell transplants:

  • high-dose treatment with stem cell support
  • allogenic (donor) stem cell transplants

A transplant using stem cells (early blood cells) from another person (a donor) is called a donor stem cell transplant. The medical term for this is an allogeneic transplant. It’s also sometimes called an allograft or a bone marrow transplant.

A donor stem cell transplant can be used to treat cancers such as lymphoma, myeloma and leukaemia. It's also sometimes used to treat some other diseases of the bone marrow or immune system.

The aim of a donor stem cell transplant is to replace your bone marrow and immune system with that of a donor’s. This will give you a new, healthy bone marrow, and an immune system that can fight any remaining cancer cells.

High-dose treatments

High-dose treatment with stem cell support is normally given after treatment with standard chemotherapy. It’s used to destroy any remaining cancer cells and can increase the chances of curing certain types of cancers or leukaemias.

High-dose treatment with stem cell support involves storing your stem cells and returning them to you after treatment. This allows you to have much higher doses of chemotherapy than usual.

This treatment is also called autologous stem cell transplant. It is used to treat different cancers and some types of leukaemias and lymphomas. It can also be used to treat some rare non-cancerous conditions.

Last updated:
03 November 2022

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