Adjuvant therapy: Treatment to keep cancer from returning

Understand your options before you decide whether adjuvant therapy is for you. Balance the side effects with the benefits of treatment when making your decision. By Mayo Clinic Staff

You've had surgery to take out your tumor, and your surgeon says all the cancer was removed. Yet, you've been referred to another doctor to consider more treatment — called adjuvant therapy. You may wonder why you need additional treatment when your cancer has already been removed.

Even if your surgery was successful in removing all visible cancer, there may be a chance that your cancer could return. Doctors feel this may be due to microscopic bits of cancer that may remain and are undetectable with current methods. Depending on your specific case, you may benefit from adjuvant therapy, since this additional treatment may reduce the risk that your cancer will return.

Adjuvant therapy is used after primary treatments, such as surgery or radiation. But the added benefit of adjuvant therapy doesn't come without a price — the side effects can be more than minor inconveniences.

Not everyone benefits from adjuvant therapy. Work with your doctor to determine if adjuvant therapy is right for you.

Which treatments are used as adjuvant therapies?

Types of cancer treatment that are used as adjuvant therapy include:

  • Chemotherapy. Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy treats the entire body, killing cancer cells, no matter where they may be located. Adjuvant chemotherapy isn't helpful in all situations, so talk to your doctor about whether this treatment is right for you and how much of a benefit it may provide.
  • Hormone therapy. Some cancers are sensitive to hormones. For these cancers, treatments to stop hormone production in your body or block the effect of hormones on your cancer may be helpful. Cancers that are commonly hormone sensitive include breast, uterine and prostate cancers. Your cancer will be analyzed to see if it's hormone sensitive. If it is, you might benefit from hormone therapy. Hormone therapy can be used in conjunction with surgery, radiation or chemotherapy.
  • Radiation therapy. Radiation therapy uses high-powered energy beams, such as X-rays, to kill cancer cells. Radiation therapy can be given internally or externally. Adjuvant radiation therapy focuses on the area around the original cancer site to reduce the risk that cancer will recur in that area.
  • Immunotherapy. Immunotherapy works with your body's own immune system to fight off remaining cancer cells. Immunotherapy treatment can either stimulate your body's own defenses or supplement them.
  • Targeted therapy. Targeted therapy aims to alter specific abnormalities present within cancer cells. For example, women with a type of breast cancer that makes too much of a protein called human growth factor receptor 2 (HER2) may choose a targeted therapy drug that blocks the action of that specific protein. These medications target the specific protein within those cancer cells. More targeted therapies are under development and may one day be available for use as adjuvant therapy.
May. 03, 2012 See more In-depth