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Cancer

Background / Definition

Cancer is a term used for diseases in which abnormal cells divide without control and are able to invade other tissues in the body.  Cancer cells can spread to other parts of the body through the blood and lymph (cells that help fight infections and other diseases) systems.

The body is made up of many living cells. Normal living cells grow and divide to make new cells as they are needed to keep the body health.  When these cells become old or get damaged they die in an orderly way and are replaced with new cells. Cancer startswhen this orderly process goes wrong and new cells form when the body does not need them or the old and damaged cells do not die when they should. The extra cells may form a mass of tissues called a tumor.

Not all tumors are cancerous and not all cancers form tumors.  Benign tumors are not cancerous. They can often be removed and in most cases they do not come back. The cells in a benign tumor do not spread or invade other parts of the body.  Malignant tumors are cancerous. These cells can invade other tissues and can spread to other parts for the body.  The cancer cells spread by getting into the body’s bloodstream or lymph vessels.  The spread of the cancer from one part of the body to another is called metastasis.

There are more than 100 different types of cancer. Most cancers are named for the organ or type of cell in which they start. For example, a cancer that starts in the colon is called colon cancer, and a cancer that starts in the breast is called breast cancer.  If a cancer spreads to another part of the body, it is still based on the where the tumor started. For example, if a cancer starts in the colon and spreads to the liver, the cancer cells in the liver are still colon cancer cells.  The new diagnosis would be metastatic colon cancer not liver cancer.

Cancer types can be grouped into broader categories. The main categories of cancer include:

  • Carcinoma – Cancer that starts in the skin or in tissues that line or cover internal organs
  • Sarcoma – Cancer that start in the starts in bone, cartilage, fat, muscle, blood vessels, or other connective or supportive tissue
  • Leukemia – Cancer that starts in the blood-forming tissue such as bone marrow and causes large numbers of abnormal blood cells to be produced and enter the blood
  • Lymphoma and Myeloma – Cancers that start in cells of the immune system
  • Central Nervous System Cancers –  Cancers that start in the tissues of the brain and spinal cord

Diagnosis

Oncologist and Hematologist are the physicians that diagnosis patients with cancer. They normally ask about a person’s medical history, perform a physical exam and may order special lab tests, xrays, or procedures to determine if a person has cancer. Some of the tests include:

  • Lab tests – Blood, urine, stool, tumor tissues, or other tissues, and other fluids maybe tested to help in the diagnosis. These tests for tumor markers (substances that are produced by cancer or by other cells of the body in response to cancer)
  • X-ray – this test shows views of the organs or bones inside the body
  • CT Scan – This test shows 2D or 3D detailed pictures or scans of the specific area (bones or organs) in the body
  • MRI – the is another type of scan that shows more detailed pictures of the specific areas in the body where cancer is a concern
  • PET scan – This test has a small amount of radioactive material injected into a persons bloodstream and shows pictures to identify high areas of activity which can be cancer
  • Biopsy – This test takes a sample of tissues from the patient and is examed under a microscope.

Once the Oncologist or Hematologist determines a patient has cancer they then have to find out the cancers stage.  Staging is the process of finding out how much cancer there is in a person’s body and where it’s located.  Doctors use staging information to plan the best possible treatment and prognosis.

Treatments

Doctors will often consider the patient’s age and general health when discussing treatment options. The goal of cancer treatment is the cure the cancer, but sometimes the goal may be to control the cancer or reduce the symptoms for as long as possible. The most common types of cancer treatments include:

  • Surgery – This is done for many reasons. Some surgery types are minor and maybe called procedures, while others are much bigger operations
  • Chemo Therapy (chemo) – This is the use of medicines or drugs to treat cancer
  • Radiation Therapy – Uses high-energy particles or waves to destroy or damage cancer cells
  • Targeted Therapy – A newer type of cancer treatment that uses drugs or other substances to more precisely identify and Attack cancer cells
  • Immuno Therapy – A treatment that uses your body’s own immune system to help fight cancer.

Side Effects

Chemotherapy are powerful medicines that can cause side effects as well radiation therapy can cause side effects by damaging normal, healthy cells near the cancer. It is important that the treatment is never stopped without first speaking to a doctor or pharmacist since some side effects can be managed. Patients can have both physical side effects and emotional side effects.

The most common types of physical side effects are: pain, nausea and vomiting, fatigue, anemia, lymph edema, infection, fertility and sexual side effects in men and women, incontinence, ostomies or stomas, hair loss, confusion or memory problems, and constipation and diarrhea.

The most common types of emotional side effects are: distress, anxiety, fear, depression, confusion or memory problems, and anger.

Symptoms

Signs and symptoms are both signals of injury, illness, or disease that ell us that something is not right in the body. A sign is a signal that can be seen by someone else like a loved one, doctor, nurse or other healthcare professional. For example weight loss or gain, fever, fast breathing.  A symptom is a signal that’s felt or noticed by the person who has it, but may not be seen by any one else. For example weakness, trouble breathing, and dizziness.

Cancer can cause almost any sign or symptom. The signs and symptoms will depend on where the cancer is, how big it is, and how much it affects the organs or tissues. Some of the most common signs and symptoms of cancer include:

  • Unexpected weight loss
  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Pain
  • Skin changes
  • Change in bowel habits or bladder function
  • Sore that do not heal
  • White patches inside the mouth or white spots on the tongue
  • Unusual bleeding or discharge
  • Thickening or lump in the breast or other part of the body
  • Indigestion or trouble swallowing
  • Recent change in a wart or mole or any new skin changes
  • Nagging cough or hoarseness

The signs and symptoms above are the most common ones seen with cancer, but there many others that are not listed. If you notice any changes in the way your body works or feels especially if it lasts for a long time or gets worse contact for doctor.

Causes

Cancer is a complex group of diseases with many possible causes. Research shows that certain risk factors can increase the chance that a person will develope cancer. The most common type of risk factors include:

  • Tobacco – tobacco use is strongly lined to an increase risk for many types of cancers
  • Genetics- some types of cancer run in certain families
  • Radiation – Ultraviolet radiation: sun exposer  that can cause skin damage that can lead to skin cancer and Ionizing radiation: radiation that come from radioactive fallout or radan gas and medical radiation from X-rays
  • Infections- certain viruses and bacteria are able to cause cancer. Examples Human Papillomavirus (HPV), Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C, Helicobater pylon, and Epstein Barr virus can lead to cancer
  • Immunosuppressive Medicines- these medicines lower the body’s ability to stop cancer from forming
  • Environmental Factors: certain chemicals or other substances- people who have certain jobs like working in a power plant may be exposed to chemicals or other substances that have an increased risk of cancer
  • Personal Care- Diet, obesity, alcohol, and physical activity

Sources

National Cancer Institute
American Cancer Society