Common Types of Cancer Medications

Published: October 06, 2021
Revised: February 16, 2023
By Nicholas A. Link, PharmD, BCOP

There are several types of cancer medications that work to treat cancer in different ways. The type of medication you need depends on the kind of cancer you have. Your doctor may prescribe one medication or a combination of medications. Until recently, standard or traditional chemotherapy has been used to treat cancer, but recently three new types of specialized medications—hormonal therapy, targeted therapy, and immunotherapy—have joined the fight against cancer.

What is standard chemotherapy?
Standard chemotherapy medications destroy cancer cells. It works by killing or keeping the cancer cells from growing and dividing in your body. Chemo is often used along with surgery or radiation therapy. These medications are very powerful and can also harm healthy cells. This damage to healthy cells is what causes the side effects that are often linked to standard chemotherapy. These treatments may be given several ways, including intravenously (into a vein), by mouth, or as an injection into a specific area of your body.

What is hormonal therapy?
Some types of cancers (prostate cancer, some breast cancers, and endometrial/uterine cancer) are caused by hormones like estrogen and testosterone causing cancer cells to grow. Hormonal therapies treat cancer by preventing cancer cells from being affected by hormones or by preventing the body from making these hormones. 

What is targeted therapy?
Targeted cancer therapy are medications that act only on a cancer cell. In contrast, other chemotherapy medications may attack all fast-growing cells and are unable to tell if a cell is a cancer cell or a normal healthy cell. 

What is immunotherapy?
Immunotherapy medications use your body’s immune system to attack cancer cells by boosting or changing how the immune system works.

Do hormonal therapy, targeted therapy, and immunotherapy have the same side effects as chemotherapy?
Hormonal, targeted, and immune therapies often do not have the same side effects often associated with chemotherapy. Common side effects of chemotherapy often include hair loss, nausea and vomiting, and a weakened immune system. These new therapies may cause other types of side effects like skin rashes, diarrhea, or hot flashes. However, these side effects are generally more tolerable than those experienced with standard chemotherapy. 

Are cancer medications ever combined?
Yes. In some cases, your cancer doctor may choose to combine chemotherapy and these newer therapies. The decision to combine therapies is often determined by factors like the type of cancer, how far the cancer has developed, and overall health of the patient.

Are all cancer treatments given intravenously?
No. Many of these new treatment options, and even some new chemotherapy medications, can be given as shots or taken by mouth. Often these alternatives make these therapies more convenient for patients, and some can be taken or used at home. 

Cancer treatment is always evolving. The answers to the questions above are meant to give a general overview of newer treatment approaches. Ask your cancer doctor or pharmacist working in the oncology clinic for specific details of your treatment medications. 

Related Articles

subscribe section background