Most people are overwhelmed when they learn they have cancer. Among the multitude of questions that start running through the mind, a key concern is “Is my cancer treatable?” This article gives a perspective into the meaning of “treat” and “cure” in the context of oncology.
The goals of cancer treatment are to:
- Prolong survival.
- Improve the quality of life.
These goals are not mutually exclusive but often overlap.
- Treatment for Cure: When a person is diagnosed with a “curable cancer”, it means that there is a good chance that the cancer can be completely cured with treatment. The probability of cure can be estimated based on various prognostic factors like the stage of cancer, type of cancer, etc. Since the goal here is to achieve a complete cure, treatment can sometimes be aggressive, accepting short-term side effects for a long-term normal and healthy life. See this article for a first-person patient account of overcoming breast cancer.
- Treatment to prolong survival: For some people with cancer, a complete cure may not be possible, This may be because the disease is too advanced to be totally cured, or because the person is not medically fit enough to undergo curative treatment which the particular cancer requires. In such cases, treatment can often be given to prolong survival, allowing the person to live much longer than they would without treatment. In this situation, it is important to keep side-effects to a minimum, balancing duration of life alongside quality of life.
- Treatment to improve quality of life: At times, specific cancer-directed treatment may not be possible. This situation arises when the toxicity of cancer-directed treatment is likely to be worse than any potential benefit. It can happen because the person is too frail, or if multiple cancer-directed therapies are already complete and the disease is no longer responding, or the side-effects are unmanageable. It is important to remember that, even under these circumstances, a lot can be done to enhance the quality of life. Symptom-directed treatment (as opposed to cancer-directed treatment) has advanced by leaps and bounds in the past few years. A variety of medications and techniques are now available to control symptoms like pain, vomiting, nausea, jaundice, obstruction of the gastrointestinal tract, etc. The majority of people are able to achieve a good quality of life till the end.
Today, more and more people with cancer are diagnosed at an early stage – for many of them “treatment” is synonymous with “cure”. For others, many treatment options exist – both to prolong life as well as to achieve and maintain a good quality of life.
Let us dispel the notion in cancer that “nothing can be done.” Without exception, every person with cancer can be treated.