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

Your surgeon says the operation to remove your cancer was successful. So why do you need more cancer treatment? Your healthcare team might recommend more treatment to stop cancer from coming back. This is called adjuvant therapy.

What is adjuvant therapy?

Adjuvant therapy is cancer treatment that's given after primary treatments, such as surgery. The goal is to lower the chance of cancer coming back. Because even if all visible cancer is removed during surgery, there still may be some remaining in the body that can't be seen.

Which treatments are used as adjuvant therapies?

Types of cancer treatment used as adjuvant therapy include:

  • Chemotherapy. Chemotherapy treats cancer with strong medicines. Many chemotherapy medicines exist. Most are given through a vein. Some come in pill form.
  • Hormone therapy. Some types of cancer are fueled by the body's hormones. Examples include breast cancer and prostate cancer. Hormone therapy treatments use medicines to remove those hormones from the body or block their effects. This may help stop the cancer cells from growing.
  • Radiation therapy. Radiation therapy treats cancer with powerful energy beams. The most common kind of radiation therapy is external beam radiation. During this kind of radiation therapy, you lie on a table while a machine moves around you. The machine directs radiation to precise points on your body. Another type of radiation is called brachytherapy. For this, a sealed radiation source is placed inside your body next to the area that needs treatment.
  • Immunotherapy. Immunotherapy for cancer is a treatment with medicine that works with the body's immune system to kill cancer cells. The immune system fights off diseases by attacking germs and other cells that shouldn't be in the body. Cancer cells survive by hiding from the immune system. Immunotherapy helps the immune system cells find and kill the cancer cells.
  • Targeted therapy. Targeted therapy for cancer is a treatment that uses medicines that attack specific chemicals in cancer cells. By blocking these chemicals, targeted treatments can cause the cancer cells to die.

Who should have adjuvant therapy?

Not everyone benefits from adjuvant therapy. Consider these factors with your healthcare team when deciding if adjuvant therapy is right for you:

  • Type of cancer. Adjuvant therapy often works well for certain types of cancer, such as breast cancer and colon cancer. But it depends on your unique situation. Adjuvant therapy may not help treat all types of cancer.
  • Stage of cancer. A cancer's stage shows how much the cancer has spread. If the cancer is at an early stage, it may not have had time to spread. The chance of cancer returning after surgery may be quite low. In that case, adjuvant therapy may not offer much benefit. Adjuvant therapy may be more helpful if a cancer is at a later stage or has spread to nearby lymph nodes.
  • Number of lymph nodes involved. When cancer spreads from where it started, it often goes to the lymph nodes first. If your cancer has spread to the lymph nodes, you may be more likely to benefit from adjuvant therapy.
  • Hormone receptivity. Hormone therapy won't be effective if your cancer is not fueled by specific hormones.
  • Other cancer-specific changes. Certain cancers may have changes within their cells that show that cancer is likely to return. In these cancers, adjuvant therapy may be helpful. If tests show that your cancer is not likely to return, you may not need adjuvant therapy.

Adjuvant therapy doesn't ensure your cancer will not return. But it can lower the risk of the cancer coming back.

Is adjuvant therapy for you?

To decide if adjuvant therapy is right for you, discuss the following points with your healthcare professional:

  • Type of therapy. Find out exactly what to expect during adjuvant therapy. Do you have to see your healthcare professional for injections or will you take pills at home?
  • Side effects. What side effects are you willing to live with? What might be too much to tolerate? Do you plan to work or stay active during treatment? Could side effects interfere with your plans? How long will these side effects last? Are any of these side effects permanent?
  • How long treatment lasts. Adjuvant treatments may last from just a few weeks to as long as 10 years. Understand what the recommendations are and why your healthcare professional is making them.
  • Chances of staying cancer-free. What are the chances the cancer will return if you decide against further therapy? How much will adjuvant therapy help you? Your healthcare professional can estimate your treatment effectiveness by looking at studies of other people with the same type and stage of cancer who had the same treatment.
  • Effects of overall health. People in otherwise good health may have fewer side effects during adjuvant therapy. They also may be more likely to benefit. People with serious health problems may be more likely to have side effects during adjuvant therapy. They also may be less likely to benefit. If you have other major health problems such as heart disease or serious lung disease, you may not benefit as much from adjuvant treatments.
  • Cost. In the United States, most adjuvant therapies recommended by your healthcare professional are likely to be covered by health insurance. But you may be expected to pay for some part of the treatment. Some medicines and procedures can be expensive. Prepare by asking about costs and what you can expect. If you're concerned about affording treatment, let your healthcare team know about your concerns. Ask to talk with a medical social worker who can connect you with financial resources that might help.

Carefully think about what you prefer. You may want to do everything to lessen the chance of your cancer returning despite any side effects. Or you may decide you don't want the extra side effects if the therapy isn't likely to help much. Talk with your healthcare professional about what's recommended and why. Your healthcare professional can help you decide whether the benefits of adjuvant therapy outweigh the risks for you.

From Mayo Clinic to your inbox

Sign up for free and stay up to date on research advancements, health tips, current health topics, and expertise on managing health. Click here for an email preview.

To provide you with the most relevant and helpful information, and understand which information is beneficial, we may combine your email and website usage information with other information we have about you. If you are a Mayo Clinic patient, this could include protected health information. If we combine this information with your protected health information, we will treat all of that information as protected health information and will only use or disclose that information as set forth in our notice of privacy practices. You may opt-out of email communications at any time by clicking on the unsubscribe link in the e-mail.

May 02, 2024 See more In-depth

See also

  1. Health foods
  2. Alternative cancer treatments: 11 options to consider
  3. Atypical cells: Are they cancer?
  4. Biological therapy for cancer
  5. Biopsy procedures
  6. Blood Basics
  7. Bone marrow transplant
  8. Bone scan
  9. Cancer
  10. Cancer
  11. Cancer blood tests
  12. Myths about cancer causes
  13. Infographic: Cancer Clinical Trials Offer Many Benefits
  14. Cancer diagnosis: 11 tips for coping
  15. Cancer-related fatigue
  16. Cancer pain: Relief is possible
  17. Cancer-prevention strategies
  18. Cancer risk: What the numbers mean
  19. Cancer surgery
  20. Cancer survival rate
  21. Cancer survivors: Care for your body after treatment
  22. Cancer survivors: Late effects of cancer treatment
  23. Cancer survivors: Managing your emotions after cancer treatment
  24. Cancer survivorship program
  25. Cancer treatment
  26. Cancer treatment myths
  27. Cancer-related fatigue
  28. Cancer-related pain
  29. Cancer-related weakness
  30. Chemo targets
  31. Chemoembolization
  32. Chemotherapy
  33. Chemotherapy and hair loss: What to expect during treatment
  34. Chemotherapy and sex: Is sexual activity OK during treatment?
  35. Chemotherapy nausea and vomiting: Prevention is best defense
  36. Chemotherapy side effects: A cause of heart disease?
  37. Complete blood count (CBC)
  38. Cough
  39. CT scan
  40. Curcumin: Can it slow cancer growth?
  41. Cancer-related diarrhea
  42. Eating during cancer treatment: Tips to make food tastier
  43. Fatigue
  44. Fertility preservation
  45. Heart cancer: Is there such a thing?
  46. High-dose vitamin C: Can it kill cancer cells?
  47. Honey: An effective cough remedy?
  48. Infographic: CAR-T Cell Therapy
  49. Intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT)
  50. Intrathecal chemotherapy
  51. Joint pain
  52. Low blood counts
  53. Magic mouthwash
  54. Medical marijuana
  55. Microwave ablation for cancer
  56. Mindfulness exercises
  57. Minimally invasive cancer surgery
  58. Monoclonal antibody drugs
  59. Mort Crim and Cancer
  60. Mouth sores caused by cancer treatment: How to cope
  61. MRI
  62. Muscle pain
  63. Needle biopsy
  64. Night sweats
  65. No appetite? How to get nutrition during cancer treatment
  66. Palliative care
  67. PALS (Pets Are Loving Support)
  68. Pelvic exenteration
  69. PET/MRI scan
  70. Precision medicine for cancer
  71. Radiation therapy
  72. Seeing inside the heart with MRI
  73. Self-Image During Cancer
  74. Sentinel lymph node mapping
  75. Sisters' Bone Marrow Transplant
  76. Sleep tips
  77. Small cell, large cell cancer: What this means
  78. Stem Cells 101
  79. Stem cells: What they are and what they do
  80. Surgical biopsy
  81. Tumor vs. cyst: What's the difference?
  82. TVEC (Talimogene laherparepvec) injection
  83. Ultrasound
  84. Unexplained weight loss
  85. Stem cell transplant
  86. How cancer spreads
  87. MRI
  88. PICC line placement
  89. When cancer returns: How to cope with cancer recurrence
  90. Wide local skin excision
  91. X-ray