Like every treatment, cancer cures also come with side effects. But the expectation-vs-reality gap in this case is big.

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Saturday, February 05, 2022 - 13:07

The moment we hear the phrase “cancer patient”, we imagine a weak person who has lost all their hair, confidence and permanently has tubes attached to their bodies to get through everyday life. Characters in many movies and TV shows are portrayed like this, and as a result many people often say or believe that the treatment is worse than the disease.

“That is certainly not true,” says Dr. AN Vaidhyswaran, Director and Senior Consultant, Radiation Oncologist, Kauvery Cancer Institute, Alwarpet, Chennai, and adds, “Cancer treatment has evolved extensively in the last two decades.”

How is cancer treated?

“Cancer treatment mainly depends on which stage it gets detected in. It is determined by the ‘TNM classification’,” explains Dr Vaidhyswaran. TNM stands for Tumour, Node, Metastasis.

Let’s take the example of breast cancer. The detection of a malignant lump or a primary tumor is the Tumor stage. When this cancer has spread to the Lymph nodes, in the armpit, it is in the Nodal stage, and when it has spread to other organs like the lungs, liver or brain, it means the cancer is in the Metastasis stage. Depending on the stage at which the cancer is detected, the course of the treatment is decided.

The most common treatment practices are surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Depending on the stage, it will either be one of these practices or a combination of them.

“If cancer is detected in the primary tumor stage, it can first be removed through surgery and the microscopic spread can be cured by radiation. If the cancer has spread to lymph nodes or if it has metastasized, chemotherapy is also included,” says the doctor.

Other treatments like hormone therapy, immunotherapy and bone marrow transplant are also opted by oncologists depending on the type of cancer and the stage.

“Almost all cancers are treatable, “he adds.

Watch the video on how cinema influences our understaning of cancer here


Expectation Vs Reality

Like every treatment, cancer cures also come with side effects. But the expectation-vs-reality gap in this case is big. While surgery is fairly straightforward, there are plenty of doubts about radiation therapy and chemotherapy.

“The moment I mention radiation therapy, patients have asked me if it is a shock treatment, if it will burn their bodies and if it will cause cancer to other parts of their bodies.” says Dr Vaidhyswaran.

Radiation is not shock treatment. They are high intensity X-rays which are used to shrink tumors and clear the affected tissues that are too small in size to be removed by surgery. While continuous exposure to radiation is considered a cause of cancer, these rays are only focused on the affected areas and not the whole body. So there is no need to worry about this causing cancer to the other parts.

There are many assumptions made about chemotherapy too. This treatment involves the use of potent drugs that kill fast-growing cells in the body. A person receiving chemotherapy is often projected as someone who is nothing but skin and bones.

The most common side-effect of chemotherapy is hair loss. This is an important concern for many, especially women because of the way cancer patients are looked at by society. “A person who is undergoing chemotherapy need not exhibit all the physical side effects. They can look normal.While hair loss is possible during chemotherapy, it grows back,” the doctor adds.

Earlier cancer treatments were primitive and painful but a lot has changed since then and oncological treatments are ever-evolving. “With the recent advancements, cancer treatment can be made far less painful.” assures Dr AN Vaidhyswaran.

The notion that it is better to endure the disease than the treatment has to change. This can happen only with awareness and a change in the way cancer is being represented.

This article has been published in association with Kauvery Hospital.