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Systemic Therapy

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Systemic therapy is a term used to describe treating cancer with medications.

The medications used to treat your cancer are chosen based on your type cancer. It can be a single medication or a group of more than one type of medication. Some medications are given through your vein, some are given by a needle and some are taken by mouth.

The following is general information about the different types of medications available and what they are used for.


Chemotherapy (sometimes called chemo) uses drugs to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy is used to treat many types of cancer. Chemotherapy drugs can be given on their own or they can be given together in a combination (called combination chemotherapy). 

Goals of Chemotherapy

Your treatment plan will depend on the kind of cancer you have, its stage and the goal of your treatment. Your cancer care team will explain why chemotherapy is a treatment option for you. The goals of your treatment may be to:

  • Cure the cancer: Chemotherapy, by itself or with another treatment, is given to destroy cancer cells in the body.
  • Shrink a tumour before other treatments (neoadjuvant chemotherapy): Sometimes chemotherapy is given to shrink a tumour before surgery or radiation.
  • Destroy cancer cells after other treatments (adjuvant chemotherapy): Chemotherapy is often given in addition to surgery or radiation treatments to destroy cancer cells that may have been missed by the surgery or radiation.
  • Prepare for a bone marrow or stem cell transplant (ablative chemotherapy): Chemotherapy is used to destroy the bone marrow before it is replaced by the stem cells or bone marrow from a donor.
  • Relieve symptoms caused by cancer (palliative chemotherapy): Chemotherapy may be given to reduce pain and other symptoms of cancer.

Targeted Therapy

Targeted therapy uses drugs to target specific molecules (for example, proteins) inside cancer cells or on their surface. It is used to:

  • Slow the growth of cancer
  • Destroy cancer cells
  • Relieve symptoms caused by cancer.

Immunotherapy Therapy

Immunotherapy is a type of cancer treatment that boosts the body’s natural defences against cancer. There are different types of immunotherapy treatments that work in different ways. Checkpoint inhibitors are a type of immunotherapy that engage the immune system to attack and kill cancer cells.

Immunotherapy works better for some cancers than others. In the last few decades, this has become a more important form of cancer treatment and can be used alone or along with other treatments such as chemotherapy, surgery and radiation..

Hormonal Therapy

Hormones are natural substances or chemicals in your body. Some types of cancer use these hormones to help them grow. Hormone therapies are drugs that stop certain hormones from being made, or from being active in the body. Stopping the hormones can stop the cancer cells from growing. These drugs may be taken by mouth or in a needle.

More Information

Click on the images below for more information about cancer and systemic therapy

Canadian Cancer Society 

Cancer Care Ontario

Niagara Health System