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There are various approaches to treating cancer, many of which involve combinations of therapies to provide the most effective treatment.

Your doctor should discuss treatment options with you and explain the benefits and risks involved. Following is an overview of some cancer treatments. For information about treating specific cancers see types of cancer


Chemotherapy uses drugs to destroy or slow the growth of cancer cells. Treatment might use a single chemotherapy drug or combination of drugs. This will depend on the type of cancer being treated.

Chemotherapy may be the only treatment needed but can also be used in combination with surgery, radiation therapy or other drug therapies.

See our understanding chemotherapy booklet or epub.


Radiotherapy (also called radiation therapy or x-ray therapy) uses high energy radiation to destroy cancer cells or impede their growth. It is commonly delivered externally, through the skin. However, it can be administered internally (brachytherapy) with the placement of small sources of radioactive material in or near the cancer. Radiotherapy is used:

  • as a curative treatment, often in association with other approaches
  • to relieve pain and discomfort associated with incurable disease.

See our understanding radiotherapy booklet or epub.


It will also relieve discomfort from tumours that are obstructing organs or causing bleeding. Surgery is often used in combination with radiotherapy and/or chemotherapy to make sure that any cancer cells remaining in the body are removed.

See our understanding surgery booklet.


Immunotherapy is a cancer drug treatment focusing on using the body's immune system to attack cancer. Made up of a series of special cells, chemicals and organs, the immune system protects the body from infection. There are different types of immunotherapy that work in several ways. Immunotherapy may:

  • Boost the immune system to help it fight cancer
  • Slow the growth of cancer cells
  • Remove barriers to the immune system attacking cancer.

See our understanding immunotherapy fact sheet.

Hormone therapy

Hormone therapy can also involve the surgical removal of hormone producing glands to control cancer growth. These treatments are commonly used for prostate, breast and uterine cancers. 

Complementary and alternative therapies

Complementary therapies are used alongside conventional medicine and can help support and enhance cancer patients' quality of life and improve well-being. Alternative therapies are used instead of conventional medicine and are not recommended by Cancer Council Australia.

See our understanding complementary therapies booklet. or epub.

Targeted therapy

Targeted therapy is a drug treatment that attacks specific features of cancer cells to stop the growth and spread of the cancer. These are known as molecular targets. Targeted therapy can also be known as biological therapy and molecular targeted therapy.

See our understanding targeted therapy fact sheet.

Clinical trials

A clinical trial is a study that compares responses to different interventions in real settings, to test the effectiveness of medicines or other health measures. Clinical trials are voluntary and are governed by strict rules and ethics.

They are often undertaken in a clinical setting, such as a hospital or outpatient clinic. The participants are usually patients, but they may include former patients and people who are well. 

See our understanding clinical trials and research booklet.

Palliative care

Palliative care aims to enhance quality of life and allow people to maintain their independence. Palliative care can help reduce cancer symptoms such as pain, fatigue and nausea and can also be used to reduce side effects from treatment. Palliative care can be started at any stage after a cancer diagnosis.

See our understanding palliative care booklet or epub

This page was last updated on: Wednesday, January 22, 2020

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