Advanced cancer treatment involves extensive medical treatment to regain control over the cancer, or it attempts to maximize quality of life through palliative care, relieving suffering but not curing the disease. Medical treatment undertakes a combination of different treatments and techniques, including chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and surgery. This type of treatment can place a great physical burden on the patient, and the chances of success are not always good, although great strides have been made in recent years, and new treatments are continually being developed. Patients whose prognosis is especially poor may elect to receive palliative care, which focuses on making the patient comfortable and preserving dignity, but does not treat the underlying condition.
Cancer typically begins as a small cluster of abnormal cells. If detected early, it can often be treated effectively. If not, it will eventually metastasize and spread, via the lymphatic and circulatory systems, throughout the body. At this point, some form of advanced cancer treatment is necessary.
When doctors attempt to cure stage four cancer — the stage at which the cancer has metastasized widely — they will employ an advanced cancer treatment that targets as many areas affected by the cancer as possible. Surgery is used to remove cancerous tissues, and radiation and chemotherapy are used, aggressively, to kill the remaining cancerous cells. The efficacy of this style of advanced cancer treatment varies depending on which sort of cancer is being treated. It has at least a modest chance of success in treating many varieties of cancer although the side effects and stress from the treatment program can be very serious.
Recent medical advances have begun to offer additional advanced cancer treatment options, although these are not yet widely available or available for all forms of cancers. The drug Gleevec® is a good example of one approach to advanced cancer treatment. It targets a single chemical process in the growth of one especially dangerous variety of leukemia, blocking the spread of cancer and, often, allowing the patient to go into remission with only modest side effects. This does not cure the cancer, but it is both more effective and less physically taxing than earlier forms of treatment. Other drugs are in development that target similar chemical processes in other forms of cancer or that act in other ways to limit cancer without placing major stress on the body.
Not all patients with advanced cancer choose to undergo treatment designed to force the cancer into remission. In cases where the patient's health is weak or the prognosis is poor even with treatment, patients may elect to receive palliative care instead. Palliative care provides medical support to ease or eliminate physical suffering and will often culminate in hospice care where patients are kept as comfortable as possible when suffering from very advanced cancer.