Living with cancer

Types of treatment

This section gives a brief description of the main types of treatment available for cancer. You can find more detailed information by visiting the Cancer types section of this website.


Surgery may be used to confirm the diagnosis and assess the stage of the cancer as well as to treat or to control the cancer.

Surgical treatment for cancer usually aims to remove all or as much as possible of the cancer. It may involve a stay in hospital, although some cancer surgery procedures can be done in a day.

It is best for surgery to be carried out by a surgeon who specialises in treating your particular cancer. You may be referred to a different hospital for this appointment and treatment. This is because the cancer experts tend to be based in Cancer Centres. You should also be introduced to, or given contact details for a clinical nurse specialist. The specialist nurses are experienced cancer nurses and can discuss with you your operation, and the effects and recovery time. They will be able answer questions you may have and are a useful contact if you need further information and support.


Radiotherapy uses X-rays to destroy cancer cells. The most common method of radiotherapy uses a machine (linear accelerator) to target X-rays at the cancer from outside your body. You do not usually have to stay in hospital to have radiotherapy. However, for treatment to some areas of the body or towards the end of a longer course of treatment, a hospital stay may be needed. Treatment may be given in one visit or as a daily course of treatment over several weeks. At your first appointment, your cancer specialist and radiographers will plan your treatment. Treatment may not start on the same day as your first appointment.

The treatment sessions do not hurt and can last from a few seconds to several minutes. Side effects vary from person to person and will also depend on which part of the body is being treated. You can talk to your doctor, specialist nurse or the radiographer about possible side effects and what can be done to reduce them. An information sheet about your treatment will be available from your consultant. You can find out more about radiotherapy by visiting our Radiotherapy section.


Chemotherapy uses drugs to destroy or control cancer cells. The drugs enter the bloodstream by taking tablets or through an intravenous infusion. The different drugs destroy the cancer cells in different ways - some break them down while others disrupt their growth and some starve them of the food they need.

Chemotherapy drugs will affect normal cells as well, but the effects of this is temporary as normal cells can repair faster than cancer cells. Chemotherapy sometimes involves staying in hospital but many people visit hospital regularly as outpatients to receive their course of treatment over several weeks or months. You can find out more about chemotherapy by visiting our Chemotherapy section.

Targeted (biological) therapies

Other forms of cancer treatment are targeted therapies – sometimes known as biological therapies. There are a number of different types of biological therapies, and they’re not used for every type of cancer. Biological therapies work by interfering with the processes of the cells. They use your immune systems, directly or indirectly, to treat the cancer, or lessen side effects.

‘Watch and wait’

Some cancers do not require immediate treatment, or may never need treatment at all. This applies with some blood cancers, and low grade prostate cancers, for example. Another term sometimes used in a similar way is ‘active surveillance’.

You will have regular check-ups, blood tests and monitoring to see if/when there have been any changes. If/when treatment is needed in the future, then it will be offered. In the meantime, you can lead a normal life, unaffected by treatment side effects. However, it is recognised that the knowledge that you have a cancer, can be stressful, and you may need additional emotional support.


If you have been affected by cancer in some way and would like to talk to someone about what you have read or need help finding information - you are welcome to drop into any Maggie’s Centre or to visit Maggie’s Online Centre and talk with a cancer support specialist.