Chronic cancer is cancer that cannot be cured but that ongoing treatment, also called extended treatment, can control for months or years. As with other chronic diseases, such as multiple sclerosis or type 1 diabetes, the goal of extended treatment for cancer is to help patients live as well as possible for as long as possible. While living with cancer indefinitely is not easy, your health care team can help you manage the challenges of survivorship and extended treatment.
Reasons for extended treatment
Extended treatment continues for a long time after an initial cancer diagnosis and primary treatment. People may receive extended treatment to:
- Control a cancer. Some types of cancer are more likely to become chronic, including leukemia, lymphoma, ovarian cancer, and breast cancer. Extended treatment may help prevent the disease from growing, spreading, or progressing. This is sometimes called maintenance treatment. For example, people with chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) often take a medication known as a tyrosine kinase inhibitor daily for many years.
- Manage advanced cancer. Metastatic cancer, which means that the cancer has spread to a different part of the body from where it started, can also become chronic. In the past, many people did not live long with metastatic cancer. Today, doctors can often treat it for an extended period even if they cannot cure it.
- Prevent cancer from returning. Some people whose cancer has been cured may need extended treatment to keep it from coming back. For example, women with early-stage breast cancer whose disease has been cured using surgery or radiation therapy may receive ongoing hormone therapy.
Treatment for chronic cancer
Chemotherapy, the use of drugs to destroy cancer cells, is often recommended for chronic cancers. You may receive the same drug or drugs that were initially used to treat the disease. Or you may receive a new drug or combination of drugs. Many types of chemotherapy can now be taken as a prescription pill by mouth instead of intravenously, through a vein, at a doctor’s office or hospital.
The type of extended treatment you receive depends on:
- The type of cancer
- Where the cancer is located
- The amount of cancer
- How far the cancer has spread
- Available treatment options
- The treatments you had before
- Your age
- Your general health
- Your personal preferences
Your cancer might stay the same over time and not change during extended treatment. This means it is controlled. Treatment may be stopped if the cancer is in remission and continued if it starts growing again.
It is also possible for the cancer to go through cycles of growing, shrinking, or seemingly disappearing. If cancer continues to grow or spread, a different treatment may be recommended. It is important to remember that while chronic cancer can change, it will not go away completely.
How long will extended treatment continue?
There is no specific timeline for extended treatment of chronic cancer. Factors that you and your health care team may consider include:
- The type of cancer you have
- The type of treatment and treatment plan recommended
- How well the cancer is being controlled by the treatment
- How the treatment makes you feel physically and emotionally
- How advanced or aggressive the cancer is
- Your age
- Your overall health
Tips for managing chronic cancer
Living with chronic cancer can be difficult. These tips can help you better manage the disease and maintain a good quality of life.
- Develop a survivorship care plan with your doctor.
- Talk with your health care team about managing cancer and cancer treatment side effects.
- Learn how to manage your medication.
- Have recommended follow-up tests.
- Explore rehabilitation options.
- Make healthy lifestyle changes.