Cancer is a group of many different diseases that have
some important things in common. Cancer affects our cells, the
body's basic unit of life.
To understand cancer, it is helpful to know how normal cells
become cancerous. The body is made up of many types of cells.
Normally, cells grow, divide, and produce more cells to keep the
body healthy and functioning properly. Sometimes, however, the
process goes astray--cells keep dividing when new cells are not
needed. The mass of extra cells forms a growth or tumor. Some types
of cells are more prone to abnormal growth than others. Tumors can
be benign or malignant.
Benign tumors are not cancer. They often can be removed and, in
most cases, they do not come back. Cells in benign tumors do not
spread to other parts of the body. Most important, benign tumors
are rarely a threat to life.
Malignant tumors are cancer. Cells in malignant tumors are
abnormal and divide without control or order. These cancer cells
can invade and destroy the tissue around them. Cancer cells can
also break away from a malignant tumor and enter the bloodstream or
lymphatic system vessels (the two systems of vessels that bathe and
feed all of the body's organs). This process, called metastasis, is
how cancer spreads from the original tumor to form new tumors in
other parts of the body.
What are some of the common signs and symptoms of cancer?
Cancer can cause a variety of symptoms. These are some
Thickening or lump in the breast or any other part of the
Obvious change in a wart or mole
A sore that does not heal
Nagging cough or hoarseness
Change in bowel or bladder habits
Indigestion or difficulty swallowing
Unexplained changes in weight
Unusual bleeding or discharge
When these or other symptoms occur, they are not sure signs of
cancer. Symptoms may be caused by infections, benign tumors, or
other problems. It is important to see a doctor if you have any of
these symptoms or if you are concerned about other changes in your
body or the way you feel. Only a doctor can make a diagnosis. Don't
wait to feel pain: Early cancer usually does not cause pain.
If symptoms occur, the doctor may order various tests and/or a
. A biopsy is the most reliable way to know whether a medical
problem is cancer. During a biopsy, the doctor removes a sample of
tissue from the abnormal area. The tissue is then examined under a
microscope to check for cancer cells.
How is cancer treated?
Cancer may be treated with surgery, radiation therapy,
chemotherapy, hormone therapy, or biological therapy. The doctor
may use one method or a combination of methods. The choice of
treatment depends on the type and location of the cancer, whether
the disease has spread, the patient's age and general health, and
other factors. Because treatment for cancer also damages healthy cells and tissues, it often causes side effects. Some patients may worry that the side effects of treatment are worse than the disease. However, patients and doctors generally discuss the treatment options, weighing the likely benefits of killing cancer cells and the risks of possible side effects. Doctors can suggest ways to reduce or eliminate problems that may occur during and after treatment.
An important option for people with cancer is to take part in
clinical trials. Doctors conduct clinical trials to learn about the
effectiveness and side effects of new treatments. Through research,
doctors learn new ways to treat cancer that may be more effective
than the standard therapy. In some studies, all patients receive
the new treatment. In others, doctors compare different therapies
by giving the new treatment to one group of patients and the
standard therapy to another group. Research like this has led to
significant advances in the treatment of cancer. People who take
part in these studies have the first chance to benefit from
treatments that have shown promise. They also make an important
contribution to medical science.
Can cancer be prevented?
Cancer develops gradually as a result of a complex mix
of factors related to environment, lifestyle, and heredity.
Scientists have identified many factors that increase the chance of
getting cancer. Some people are more sensitive than others to
factors that can cause cancer.
Many cases of cancer can be prevented by not using tobacco
products, exercising regularly, avoiding harmful rays of the sun, and choosing foods with
less fat and eating more vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. In addition, alcohol and exposure to
certain chemicals and/or radiation may increase a person's risk of
Many risk factors can be avoided. Others, such as inherited
factors, are unavoidable. It is helpful to be aware of them, but it
is also important to keep in mind that not everyone with a
particular risk factor for cancer actually gets the disease; in
fact, most do not. People who have an increased likelihood of
getting cancer can help protect themselves by avoiding risk factors
where possible and by getting regular checkups so that, if cancer
develops, it is likely to be found early. Treatment is likely to be
more effective when cancer is detected early. Screening exams, such as
, and the
, may also detect precancerous conditions that can be treated before they turn into cancer.
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care
provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a
substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER
IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the
advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to
starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a