Common Types of Cancer Medications

Published: October 05, 2021
By Nicholas A. Link, Pharm.D., BCOP

There are many different types of cancer medications. Traditionally, 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. 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.

What is chemotherapy?
Also called chemo, chemotherapy medications destroy cancer cells. Chemo works by keeping the cancer cells from growing and dividing in your body. Chemo is often used along with surgery or radiation therapy. The medications used in chemotherapy 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 chemotherapy. Chemotherapy may be given several ways, including intravenously, by mouth, or as an injection.

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

What is targeted therapy?
Targeted cancer therapy refers to medications that act on a specific site only on a cancer cell. In contrast, other chemotherapy medications 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 generally 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 unique side effects like skin rashes, diarrhea, or hot flashes. However, these side effects are generally more tolerable than 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, stage, 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. 

Are alternative therapies like herbal supplements effective for treating cancer?
Currently, no alternative therapies have been proven effective in clinical trials for treating cancer. It may be safe to take alternative therapies with the other cancer medications. Ask your cancer doctor before starting an alternative therapy. 

Cancer treatment is always evolving. The roles of specialized medications will continue to play a large role in the fight against treating cancer. 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