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Cancer therapy has come a long way over the last 20 years. Death rates for cancer have declined since 1991 and this is in part due to improved therapeutic methods and combinations of treatments, as well as improved preventive interventions. The most common therapies include: surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, or any combination of the three.

Surgery is the oldest form of cancer treatment and most people with cancer have some form of surgery. It can (1) provide tissue for diagnosis, (2) remove or debulk a tumor, and (3) determine if and how far a tumor has spread for staging the cancer. Surgery may be preventative in some cases. A mastectomy (surgical removal of a breast) is an example of possible preventive surgery when done in a woman at a particularly high risk for breast cancer. In tumors that have not metastasized to distant areas, surgery may provide the best chance of cure.

Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. The goal is to target the effects of the drug only on the rapidly dividing and growing cancer cells and minimize the effects on any normal cells. Chemotherapy is frequently used in conjunction with surgery. It has the advantage of targeting distant metastatic cells or cancer cells that are not visible but may still be local to the primary tumor. Most chemotherapy is given as a combination of agents in which each agent targets a different function or process of the cancer cell.

Radiation therapy is the use of radiation to treat localized tumors. This therapy is tightly targeted to the tumor to minimize effects to the surrounding tissues. Radiation can be administered to the tumor externally via specialized machines or internally via radioactive seeds or pellets inserted directly into the tumor. Radiation therapy is frequently used to shrink the tumor prior to surgery, but may also be given after the surgery to kill any remaining cancer cells.

Hormone therapy is frequently used in combination with the above therapies in the treatment of breast and prostate cancers. Immunotherapy uses biologic agents that mimic the body's natural signals. Monoclonal antibodies targeted against specific antigens in the cancer cells are now being used against some tumors and more work is being done to identify tumor-specific antigens for other cancers.