Adjuvant Therapy: Definition & Medications

Instructor: Meghan Greenwood

Meghan has taught undergraduate and graduate level science courses and has a PhD in Immunology.

This lesson will define adjuvant therapy and discuss the use of such intervention. It will also describe some common medications used as part of the therapeutic regimen.

What Is Adjuvant Therapy?

Like a perpetrator on the loose, cancer cells have a way of hiding throughout the body. Even more frightening is their ability to escape first-line defenses and promote tumor growth in unsuspecting tissues. Thankfully, as a means to combat the cancerous fugitives, doctors use a secondary line of defense called adjuvant therapy.

Adjuvant therapy is typically recommended after a cancerous tumor has been removed. Unlike surgery, adjuvant therapy is usually given as a supplementary course of treatment - a precautionary measure to reduce the likelihood of any hidden cancer cells growing into a tumor once again. Cancer cells, like most normal cells, have the ability to divide, producing two daughter cells. What makes these cells so dangerous is their increased potential to grow. As shown in the image below, a single cell can rapidly grow, or proliferate, into a tumor mass in no time.

A parent cancer cell divides into daughter cells, and the process continues rapidly until a tumor mass is formed
Cancer cell division

Adjuvant therapy can affect the entire body or be more targeted. This is beneficial because it provides an additional way to not only remove any cancer cells leftover from the tumor mass, but also any cells that may have traveled through your bloodstream and taken up residence in a different tissue. The spreading of cancer cells away from the primary location is called metastasis, as depicted in the image below.

A cancer cell can travel away from its primary location, metastasizing through the blood stream to a secondary site of growth

What Types of Treatments Are Used as Adjuvant Therapy?

Most of the treatments used during the first round of therapy can also be used as adjuvant therapies. As mentioned above, these therapies can affect the entire body, which is referred to as systemic, or they can be targeted to one particular molecule or cell type.

Some common examples of systemic therapy include chemotherapy, radiation, and hormone therapy. Chemotherapy is a substance typically injected intravenously that will kill off any rapidly dividing cancer cells. Radiation, on the other hand, uses X-ray technology to kill cancer cells within the area where the tumor was first removed. Hormone therapy is also an injectable treatment that helps stop the cancer cells from growing; it's different than chemotherapy because it will cut off the cancer cells' food supply, instead of directly killing them.

Each of these systemic treatments comes with obvious risks. If the doctor treats you with such a therapy, there is a likelihood that other normal cells in your body may also be damaged. Unfortunately, systemic therapies are notorious for bystander side effects, or affecting healthy tissues in addition to the cancer cells. On the other hand, they are incredibly powerful medications and can be necessary for removing hearty and hidden cancer fugitives.

The image above shows a radiation therapy machine and a patient room
radiation therapy

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