Treatment for advanced cancer

In this section:

Can advanced cancer be cured?

The aim of treatment for advanced cancer is usually to help you to live longer by keeping the cancer under control, rather than to cure the cancer. Treatment also aims to help you feel better by improving any symptoms and side effects you might have.

What is treatment for?

Treatment for advanced cancer is for two purposes:

(1) To try to shrink the cancer or slow its growth 

(2) To help to improve side effects of the cancer

How effective are treatments for advanced cancer?

Treatments have developed in recent years

Researchers now understand better how many cancers grow and spread. New treatments are being developed all the time that can slow the growth of cancer and prevent it from spreading.

You may have a number of treatment options

Often there is a range of treatments that your doctor can use, so that if one doesn’t work for your cancer, or stops working, there may be another option to try.

Treatment can help your side-effects

If your cancer has stopped responding to treatment and continues to grow, treatment can still control the side effects in many cases and provide you with a much better quality of life, for longer.

Everyone’s cancer is different, and what works for one person may not work for another, but many people with advanced cancer live longer than people did in the past.

Types of treatments for advanced cancer

There is no single treatment for advanced cancer. The choice of treatment will depend on where the cancer started, how much it has spread and where it has spread to. After careful assessment of your individual case, your doctors may offer you a particular treatment or a combination of treatments, to achieve the best outcome.

Some people live with advanced cancer for a long time. This means you will likely have lots of doctor appointments to see how you are doing and check if you need a different treatment.

The main treatment options for advanced cancer are:

Surgery may be an option if you have a tumour somewhere in the body that is causing significant symptoms and can easily be removed. The surgery may not remove all the cancer from the body, but it can make you feel better if it is causing you pain or discomfort. The type of surgery you will have depends on where the cancer is, how big it is and your general health. Read about your particular cancer type to find out more about types of surgery.

Radiotherapy is sometimes used for shrinking large masses that are causing pain or other significant problems.

Chemotherapy is a type of treatment that kills cells that are dividing and grow rapidly. These include cancer cells but may also include cells related to hair and nail growth, bone marrow cells and cells of the digestive system. This is why chemotherapy sometimes causes side effects in those parts of the body.

The type of chemotherapy recommended to you depends on the type of chemotherapy you have received before, the type of cancer you have and how the chemotherapy side effects will affect you.

See our chemotherapy webpage for more information and to view video clips on chemotherapy.

Hormonal therapies are used to control cancers that are stimulated to grow by certain hormones. See our page on hormone therapy for more information.

Biological (targeted) therapies are treatments that affect the way cells work to slow the growth of cancer, kill cancer cells or help your immune systems to fight cancer. See our page on biological therapy for more information.

Palliative care is treatment and care given when you are no longer having active treatment for cancer, either because you feel that you do not want to have treatment or because the cancer is no longer responding to treatment.

With palliative care treatment is designed to relieve your symptoms and give you the best possible quality of life. For example, radiotherapy can be given as a palliative care treatment, as it can help to relieve some types of pain. Find out more information on palliative care.

Deciding on treatment for advanced cancer

Making a decision: There can be a lot to think about when you are making a decision about treatment for advanced cancer, especially if you are given a few options. It can be hard to decide what the right choice is for you, to give you the best results and quality of life.

You may feel under pressure to make a decision. You may want more time to think things through. But remember there is always time for you to consider what sort of treatment you want.

Don’t be afraid to ask your doctor or nurse if you need to have anything explained again.

You can also call the Irish Cancer Society Cancer Nurseline on 1800 200 700 or visit a Daffodil Centre to talk to one of our specialist nurses.

Second opinion: Some people find it reassuring to have another medical opinion to help decide about treatment. Some people feel uncomfortable asking their specialist for a second opinion, but doctors are used to patients doing this.

Your doctor will refer you to another specialist if you feel this would be helpful. It may help you to feel more confident about your decision, knowing that you have looked at all your options.

Accepting treatment: You have the right to find out what treatment means for you, and the right to accept or refuse it. Remember that treatment is designed to control your cancer and to be for your benefit.

If you wish to refuse treatment, let your doctor know your concerns. It may help to talk to your GP as well. The important thing is that you are fully aware of the benefits and risks.

You can still change your mind after you have started treatment. Talk to your doctor or nurse if you have any worries about your treatment plan.

Giving consent for treatment: Before you start any treatment, your doctor will explain the aims of the treatment to you. You should be asked to sign a consent form saying that you give permission for treatment to be given.

Before treatment, you should have been given full information about: 

  • What the treatment is for
  • The type and amount of treatment you will have
  • The benefits and risks of the treatment
  • Any other treatments that may be available

If you are confused about the information given to you, let your doctor or nurse know straight away. They can explain it to you again. Some treatments can be hard to understand and may need to be explained more than once.

Questions to ask your doctor

Here are some questions you may want to ask:

  • What are my treatment choices?
  • Which treatment do you recommend, and why?
  • What is the aim of the treatment – to cure the cancer, to help me live longer, or to relieve or prevent symptoms of the cancer?
  • What are the chances that the treatment will be helpful?
  • What side effects are likely to result from the treatment(s) that you recommend? What can I do to help reduce these side effects?
  • If this treatment doesn’t work or makes me feel sick, what are my other options?
  • Would a second opinion be helpful to me? Where can I get a second opinion before I start treatment?

Complementary and alternative therapies

Complementary therapies are treatments given along with usual medical treatment. For example, yoga or massage.

Alternative therapies are given instead of standard medical treatment.

Talk to your doctor if you are thinking about using complementary or alternative therapies. There is more information on our complementary and alternative therapies webpage and in our booklet, Understanding Cancer and Complementary Therapies: A Guide for Cancer Patients. You can also call our Cancer Nurseline on Freephone 1800 200 700 or visit a Daffodil Centre for more advice or to get a printed copy of the booklet.

Asking about life expectancy (prognosis)

If you know that your cancer cannot be cured, it is natural to think about how long you might live. Some people prefer not to know. Some people want to have as much information as possible.

It is not always easy for your doctor to answer a question about life expectancy, as the answer is based on a ‘typical’ experience. In reality, everybody is different and experiences can vary a lot from person to person. Even if you ask for the information, what happens to you might be quite different from what the doctor expects.

If you want to know about life expectancy it’s best to talk to your doctor, as he or she knows the most about your individual situation. Find out more information about prognosis and things to think about to help you decide if you want this information. You can also talk to our specialist cancer nurses in confidence by calling our Cancer Nurseline on 1800 200 700 or by visiting a Daffodil Centre.

Next:  Find out more about managing side-effects and symptoms of advanced cancer

Date Last Reviewed: 
Wednesday, November 7, 2018