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As part of your cancer treatment plan, you might be referred to a medical oncologist. At MU Health Care, our medical oncologists work with you and your cancer team to treat your cancer with chemotherapy or targeted medication therapies.

What is medical oncology?

For some patients, their cancer needs to be treated through a systematic approach that can target any cancer cells that remain outside of the tumor area. Medical oncologists are able to use medication to reduce or kill those remaining cells. Medical oncology treatments include chemotherapy, targeted therapy, hormonal therapy and immunotherapy. Depending on your cancer type, your medical oncologist will develop a tailored plan for you.

Medical oncology can be used as a sole treatment or in addition to other treatment methods, such as surgery or radiation oncology. At MU Health Care, we have medical oncologists who specialize in different cancers to help provide personalized assessment, planning and coordination with you and other members of your cancer treatment team.

Ambulatory infusion unit

Our ambulatory infusion unit (AIU) provides our medical oncology patients a comfortable and relaxing environment during their infusion treatment. Staffed by experienced and dedicated nurses, the AIU has reclining chairs and wireless internet for your use. Our staff can also bring you drinks or snacks during your treatment.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is medication that circulates in the bloodstream to kill cancer cells. Most often, chemotherapy is given through an IV infusion on a rotating schedule, usually every two to three weeks. Chemotherapy can be used before surgery to shrink tumors, called neoadjuvant chemotherapy, or after surgery to kill any remaining cancer cells, referred to as adjuvant chemotherapy. It can also be used on advanced cancers to slow the cancer growth.

Once the standard of treatment for many cancers, we’re now able to use genomic testing to see if chemotherapy is the best treatment option for you. For early stage breast cancers, genomic testing can help determine if you’ll benefit from chemotherapy treatment.

Chemotherapy does have side effects. Although it is designed to kill fast-growing cells that are the hallmark of cancer, it can also affect healthy cells, leading to symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, hair loss and fatigue, among others.

Targeted therapy

This type of treatment uses medication to target different cell pathways to prevent cancer cells from growing. Given through IV infusion or through oral medications, targeted therapy may be prescribed in addition to another medical oncology treatment. Similar to chemotherapy, targeted therapy can also be given before or after surgery to shrink the tumor or kill remaining cancer cells, or to reduce the cancer growth in advanced cancers.

One benefit to targeted therapy is that it has fewer side effects than chemotherapy since it’s specifically killing cancer cells. However, the most common side effects are diarrhea and liver problems.

Hormone therapy

Most often used in breast and prostate cancers, hormone therapy works by blocking the cancer

cell receptors or lowering hormone levels — estrogen in women and testosterone in men — in the body. Think of it as jamming a lock; the receptors block the key from inserting into the lock, therefore reducing the cancer from continuing to grow.

Hormone therapy is usually administered as an oral medication for a specific amount of time. It can also be given as an injection.

Immunotherapy

This type of cancer treatment uses the body's own immune system by activating or changing your immune response to fight or kill the cancer cells. This treatment has been refined to target cancer cells through multiple ways depending the cancer type: checkpoint inhibitors, chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy, cytokines, immunomodulators, cancer vaccines, oncolytic viruses or monoclonal antibodies.

Immunotherapy can be used by itself as a treatment method or with another type of cancer treatment, such as surgery. Patients typically experience fewer side effects with immunotherapy as compared to chemotherapy, and researchers continue to use clinical trials to find new cancers to treat with immunotherapy.

Clinical trials

MU Health Care is at the forefront of providing the most advanced and safest patient care, part of which includes clinical trials. Through clinical trials, our doctors, who are also researchers, work with other institutions to find new ways to improve cancer treatments and our patients' quality of life. In addition to receiving the standard of care, many of our patients may be eligible for unique clinical trials that could benefit treatment and life after cancer. Clinical trials help us find new ways to prevent and treat cancer, and they're how we're now successfully making progress against cancer. If you're eligible for a clinical trial, your doctor will talk with you more about this innovative treatment option.