Types of Cancer Treatments



Surgery treats cancer by removing tumours from your body. Most of the time, healthy tissue around the tumour will be removed as well as the tumour itself. This can help prevent the tumour from growing back. The surgeon may also remove nearby lymph nodes.

It takes time to recover from surgery. You may feel tired or weak after your operation. Before your surgery, your healthcare team will talk to you about how to deal with pain, and they may give you a prescription for medications to take afterwards.

It is very unlikely that surgery will spread the cancer in your body. Surgeons take special precautions to make sure that this does not happen, such as using a fresh set of tools on each part of your body if they are operating in more than one area. Exposing the cancer to air during surgery will not cause the cancer to spread.

Learn more about the Surgery Centre at the University Health Network and what to expect .


Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy uses high-energy radiation to treat cancer. Radiation can damage cancer cells, which stops them from reproducing, or it can kill them outright. The healthy cells around the cancer may also be damaged by radiation, but unlike the cancer cells, the healthy cells are able to recover.

Different types of radiation may be used for radiation therapy:

  • X-rays
  • Gamma rays
  • Charged particles

There are 3 different ways to deliver radiation therapy.

  • External-beam radiation therapy uses a machine outside the patient’s body to deliver radiation to the cancer.
  • Brachytherapy (internal radiation therapy) uses radioactive material placed inside the body near cancer cells to deliver radiation to the cancer.
  • Systemic radiation therapy uses radioactive substances that travel in the blood, such as radioactive iodine, to deliver radiation to the cancer.

The method that your doctors use to deliver radiation therapy will depend on things like the type and size of the cancer and where in your body it is located.

Watch the Radiation Therapy Patient Education Videos to learn more about the Radiation Therapy Centre at Princess Margaret and what to expect. You can also attend the Radiation Therapy: Answering Your Questions class to learn about radiation therapy and get your questions about treatment answered by a radiation therapist.



Chemotherapy uses drugs to treat cancer. Many different types of drugs can be used as chemotherapy. What drugs you receive depends on the type of cancer you have and the goal of the chemotherapy treatment. Because there are many different types of chemotherapy, your experience may be very different from that of other people receiving chemotherapy.

Chemotherapy drugs can be used to:

  • Destroy cancer cells
  • Stop cancer cells from spreading
  • Slow the growth of cancer cells

Chemotherapy can be used as a stand-alone treatment or in combination with other treatments. It can help other treatments work better. You may receive chemotherapy before or after surgery or radiation therapy.

There are many different ways to give chemotherapy to a person, including:

  • Intravenously (injected into a vein)
  • As a shot (an injection into a muscle)
  • Orally, as a pill or liquid that you swallow
  • Topically, as a cream or lotion that is rubbed onto your skin

Chemotherapy may be delivered daily, weekly or monthly. Your schedule for chemotherapy depends on your individual circumstances.

Learn more about the Chemotherapy & Transfusion Centre at Princess Margaret and what to expect. You can also attend the Chemo Questions & Concerns class to learn more about what you can expect and to get tips for managing side effects.


Stem Cell Transplantation

Stem cell transplantation uses stem cells to treat cancer. Stem cells are a special type of cell that can develop into other types of cells. Stem cells help you recover from high-dose chemotherapy treatment by helping your blood cells to regrow.

Stem cell transplantation is usually used after a patient receives high doses of chemotherapy, radiation therapy or both. The high doses of treatment destroy both healthy and cancerous cells in the bone marrow. Once the cancer cells have been destroyed, the patient receives stem cells to replace the ones that were destroyed.

Learn more about stem cell transplantation and the Blood & Marrow Transplant Centre at Princess Margaret and what to expect.


Targeted Cancer Therapies

Targeted cancer therapies use drugs to block the specific molecules that help cancer cells grow and spread. Scientists call these specific molecules “molecular targets.” Therapies that interfere with molecular targets are sometimes called “molecularly targeted drugs” or “molecularly targeted therapies.”

Targeted therapies use many different types of drugs that are injected through a vein and travel through the bloodstream. Each drug works differently:

  • Tyrosine kinase inhibitors block certain proteins involved in cancer cell growth.
  • Apoptosis-inducing drugs help destroy cancer cells. These drugs can help chemotherapy work better.
  • Hormonal therapy is a targeted therapy which targets cancer cells that have specific hormones. There are 2 types of hormone therapy.
    • Drugs can prevent the hormones from working or stop your body from producing them.
    • Surgery can remove the organs that produce hormones.
  • Biological therapies use the body's immune system to fight cancer or to lessen the side effects that some cancer treatments can cause.
  • Cancer vaccines and gene therapy are often considered to be targeted therapies because they interfere with the growth of specific cancer cells.

Not all cancers can be treated with a targeted therapy.


Clinical Trials

A clinical trial is the final stage of testing a new cancer treatment. Researchers at Princess Margaret are constantly striving to improve cancer diagnosis and treatment. After a new and promising treatment has been developed and tested in the laboratory, researchers need to test it on patients to see how much it helps them.

Participating in a clinical trial can give you access to treatments that are not yet available to most patients. These treatments may have fewer side effects or a stronger effect on cancer than conventional treatments. Ask your healthcare team if there are any clinical trials that you could participate in.

Read more about clinical trials in our Patient & Family Library or attend our class Clinical Trials 101 to learn about clinical trials and why you might want to participate.

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