Understanding Cancer Treatment

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 03/2018

Watch the "Moving Forward" video series for young adults, adapted from this content.

After receiving a cancer diagnosis, you may wonder where to start and what to expect from cancer treatment. Choosing an oncologist is the first step. An oncologist is a doctor who specializes in diagnosing and treating cancer. Your oncologist will help you explore treatment options, choose the best treatment, and understand the side effects.

Choosing an oncologist

Where you go for treatment and the specialists you see depends on the type of cancer you are diagnosed with. It is important to find an oncologist who has experience treating young adults with the type of cancer you have.

  • For cancers that are common in children. You may want to consider talking with a pediatric oncologist. A pediatric oncologist is a doctor who specializes in treating cancer in children and adolescents. Young adults with these cancers may benefit more from treatments designed for children than from treatments designed for adults.Examples of cancers more common in children and teens include:

    • Brain tumors

    • Leukemia

    • Osteosarcoma

    • Ewing sarcoma

  • For cancers that are more common in adults. The treatments recommended for young adults are often similar to those that other adults receive. If you are unsure about which type of oncologist you need, talk with your regular doctor. Examples of cancers more common in adults include:

    • Breast cancer

    • Colon cancer

    • Melanoma

Learn more about choosing a doctor for your cancer care.

Learning about your treatment options

Cancer is treated in different ways, depending on the type and stage of the cancer, possible side effects, and the patient’s age, overall health, and preferences. Often, cancer treatment involves a combination of treatments. Learn more about how cancer is treated.

Some treatments are offered through clinical trials. A clinical trial is a research study that tests a new approach to treatment to learn if it is safe, effective, and possibly better than the standard treatments. Only about 2% of young adults with cancer participate in clinical trials. However, many oncologists are trying to make clinical trials more accessible by adjusting the age limits for some studies. Because the biology of cancers in young adults can differ from the same cancers in children or older adults, it is important to consider participating in a clinical trial. Ask your doctor for more information about clinical trials available for you. Learn more about clinical trials.

Managing side effects

Some cancer treatments cause side effects, but preventing and controlling side effects is a major focus of your health care team. This is called palliative care or supportive care. It is an important part of the overall treatment plan, regardless of the stage of disease.

Side effects depend on a variety of factors, including the cancer’s stage, the length and dosage of treatment, and your overall health. Before treatment begins, talk with your doctor about possible side effects of each type of treatment you will be receiving. Ask which side effects are most likely to happen, when they are likely to occur, and what can be done to prevent or relieve them.

Some cancer treatments may affect how a girl’s ovaries or a boy’s testes work. This may last for a short time after completing cancer treatment. Or it may last a lifetime and cause infertility. Infertility is when you are not able to have a child.

Learn more about managing side effects and preserving fertility in men and women.

Talking with your health care team

Talking with your health care team is often difficult at first, but the more you do it, the easier it becomes. It is important to talk openly and honestly with them about how you are feeling. These tips may help:

  • Find out the best way you can communicate with your doctor or nurse if you have questions in between appointments.

  • Ask about all of your treatment options. And let your doctors or nurses know if you have a preference about your care.

  • Before treatment begins, ask if you are eligible for a clinical trial.

  • Consider getting a second opinion if you still have questions about your diagnosis and recommended treatment. Being informed and comfortable with the treatment plan and your doctor are essential. Most doctors understand that a second opinion can help you make informed decisions about treatment options.

  • Bring a list of questions to your appointments and keep a notebook to write down instructions and information.

  • Consider bringing someone with you to your appointments to help you write down and remember the information. Or, ask if you can record the conversation.

  • Ask for copies of scans and test results to keep in your own personal file for your reference.

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