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Health > Kids > Child Cancer



There are four main kinds of treatment for cancer-surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and biological therapy. These are used to destroy cancer cells and bring about a remission. Depending on what type of cancer people have, they could have one kind of treatment or a combination of treatments.

Treatments for cancer sometimes cause unwanted side effects such as hair loss, nausea, and weakness. Side effects are problems caused by the treatment. This happens because cancer treatment that destroys cancer cells also can hurt some normal cells.

Sometimes, people with cancer are treated in studies that test different types of cancer treatment. You may hear someone in your family talk about "clinical trials"; these are carefully designed studies that test new and promising treatments.

Words Used When Talking About Cancer Treatment

Biological therapy: Treatment to improve the ability of immune cells to fight infection and disease.

Chemotherapy: ( Kee-mo- THER -a-pee): Treatment with anticancer drugs.

Clinical trials: Research studies that involve patients.

Intravenous (in-tra-VEE-nus): Into the vein. Also called IV. A common way of getting medicines into the bloodstream is by having them drip down from a container through a tube and needle and into a vein. Medicine also can be injected into the vein through a syringe (veins are tubes that carry blood back to the heart from all parts of a person's body). After surgery, blood or fluids to help a patient recover can be given through IVs.

Protocol (PRO-to-kol): A detailed plan that doctors follow when treating cancer patients.

Radiation therapy (ray-dee-AY-shun THER-a-pee): Treatment of cancer with high-energy rays to kill or damage cancer cells. This treatment can come from a machine or from materials put in or near the cancer. Radiation therapy does not make the patient radioactive.

Side effects: Problems caused when cancer treatment affects healthy cells in the body. The most common side effects are hair loss, being tired, and having nausea, vomiting, and mouth sores.

Surgery (SUR-ja-ree): An operation. Cancer surgery is done to remove cancerous tissue from the body.

Vein (vayne): Tubes that carry blood back to the heart from all parts of the body.


Surgery (SUR-ja-ree) is an operation. In cancer surgery, all or part of the tumor may be cut out. Sometimes healthy tissue around the tumor also is taken out. When people have surgery, they often have to stay in the hospital until they are strong enough to come home. When they do come home, they may still be weak from the surgery. There may be some things they should not do for a while, like lifting heavy things or climbing stairs, because the body needs time to heal after surgery.


Chemotherapy (keemo-THER-a-pee) is the treatment of cancer with drugs that destroy cancer cells. These drugs go into the blood stream and are carried to cancer cells anywhere in the body. Chemotherapy is usually given many times for several months or years.

Chemotherapy is most often taken through a needle inserted into a vein, called an intravenous (in-tra-VEE-nus) or IV for short, or into a muscle (a shot), or by mouth (liquid or pills). Many different drugs are used in chemotherapy. Doctors decide which drug or groups of drugs to use depending on what type of cancer the person has.

Side Effects of Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy works mainly on the cancer cells. But healthy cells, especially those that also divide quickly, can be harmed as well. This can cause unwanted side effects, and almost all people taking chemotherapy will have side effects. Most side effects don't last long and will gradually go away after treatment is stopped. The doctor can tell your parents (or the person with cancer) which side effects are most likely.

When chemotherapy acts on normal cells in the stomach and the rest of the digestive tract, from the mouth on down, it can cause nausea and vomiting. Sometimes people lose their appetite. If they have sores on the tongue, gums, or inside the cheeks, it is hard to eat, especially if the food is too hot, cold, or spicy. People often lose some weight because of these side effects.

Nausea and vomiting usually stop within 1 or 2 days after the drug is taken. Mouth sores may last longer and may not even start until 1 or 2 weeks after taking certain drugs. Many people with mouth sores use special mouth rinses to ease the pain.

Temporary hair loss is another common side effect of chemotherapy. Sometimes the hair falls out all at once, and other times it slowly thins out. There's no way to know whether all the hair will come out or if some parts of the body will lose more hair than others. Even if hair is lost, it usually grows back after treatment has stopped. Some people wear a wig, cap, or scarf until their hair grows back.

The bone marrow, the innermost part of the bone, makes new blood cells. If chemotherapy affects the bone marrow, it cannot produce as many blood cells as usual. For a while, the person may have fewer red blood cells, white blood cells, or platelets (PLAYT-lets), which are different kinds of cells in the blood.

Red blood cells carry needed oxygen to the tissues. When red blood cells are low, the person may be tired, pale, or cranky.

White blood cells fight infection. When they are low, the person is more likely to get sick and may need to stay out of crowded places or away from people who have something they could catch-like a cold, the flu, or chicken pox. Because of this, you may need to stay away from them if you get sick. Tell your parents when you have been around anyone who is sick, including anyone who has a cold, so they can watch for signs that you might be getting sick.

Platelets help stop bleeding. People who don't have enough platelets may bruise or bleed easily. They may have to stay away from rough play. If they get a nosebleed while their platelets are low, don't panic. They may bleed a little more than someone else would, but it will stop.

You may notice changes in how the person who is getting chemotherapy acts sometimes. Everyone has ups and downs, but these may be more extreme in people taking some kinds of chemotherapy. They may feel depressed, nervous, very hungry, or not hungry at all. Of course, every change like this is not due to chemotherapy. The person with cancer may be sad or worried.

The side effects people have depend on the drugs they take. They may have some or none of the side effects mentioned here, or they may have others. Young people who have had a parent or brother or sister with cancer have found that it is best to find out what to expect by talking to their parents or the person with cancer.

Side effects of chemotherapy are not pleasant, but they don't last forever. The drugs do not destroy all of the normal cells. Once chemotherapy is over, the hair usually grows back, and the bone marrow produces the normal amount of new blood cells. People with cancer begin to feel and act like themselves again.

Radiation Therapy

In radiation therapy (ray-dee-AY-shun THER-a-pee), high-energy rays from radioactive substances are aimed at a malignant tumor. This damages the cancer cells. They die because they can not divide. Some normal cells close to the tumor also will be damaged. But most healthy cells are protected by special lead shields that cover the parts of the body not being treated.

To be sure the radiation is aimed right at the cancer, dye or felt-tip markers are used to mark the target area on the skin. These marks are needed until treatments are finished.

If you've ever had an x-ray, you know something about what radiation therapy is like and that it does not hurt. Radiation treatments for cancer take only a few minutes and often are given over a period of several weeks.

In some cases, radiation is not beamed through a machine but instead comes from radioactive material placed in or near the tumor. Surgery is used to insert radiation implants in the tumor. Then cancer cells will be destroyed from inside the body.

The person who gets radiation therapy is not radioactive during or after radiation therapy. When people have an implant in place, however, you will not be allowed to get too close to them until it is removed. They will be in the hospital during this short period of time.

Side Effects of Radiation Therapy

Although radiation therapy is not painful, it can cause unwanted side effects. The person may be more tired than usual. The skin where radiation is aimed may feel like it has been sunburned and will need to be protected from the sun. Hair may fall out but only in the area receiving radiation. If the radiation therapy aims at the stomach, the person may have nausea or vomiting, diarrhea, or a loss of appetite. People who have radiation treatments to the head or neck may have a sore throat, headaches, difficulty swallowing, loss of appetite, loss of taste, or a changed sense of smell.

Biological Therapy

The body's natural defense system is known as the immune system. Biological therapy uses substances to try to improve the ability of immune cells to fight infection and disease, including cancer. Some of the words you may hear when the doctor, nurse, or your family talks about biological therapy are interleukin (in-ter-LOO-kin), interferon (in-terFEAR-on), growth factors, or colony-stimulating factors.

Side Effects of Biological Therapy

Biological therapy may cause a person to have nausea, diarrhea, loss of appetite, chills, fever, and/or a rash. During treatment, the person may feel weak or tired. These side effects go away when the treatment stops.

Side Effects: What You Can Do To Help

There's nothing you can do to prevent side effects from cancer treatment, but you can help make them a little easier. Just understanding that side effects can make your parent or brother or sister feel tired or sick may help you be more patient. And if the person with cancer is tired or sick but wants company, you can spend time with them doing quiet things such as talking, reading, watching TV, or playing games.

Doctors Who Work With Cancer Patients

Hematologist (hee-ma-tol-o jist): A doctor who is a specialist in the study and treatment of blood diseases.

Oncologist (on-KOL-o jist): A doctor who is a specialist in treating people with cancer.

Pathologist (pa-THOL-o jist): A doctor who is a specialist in the study of cells and tissues removed from the body as well as in making a diagnosis based on changes in these cells.

Radiation oncologist (ray-dee-AY-shun): A doctor who is a specialist in using radiation to treat cancer.

Radiologist (ray-dee-OL-o jist): A doctor who is a specialist in making and explaining pictures of areas inside the body. These pictures are made with x-rays, sound waves, or other types of energy.

Surgeon (SUR jun): A doctor who is a specialist in doing operations.

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