What is Cancer?

What is Cancer? You may hear about this disease all the time, but not really have a grasp of what it actually means.

Cancer includes a variety of diseases caused by cells not following the regular cycles of healthy cells. Cancer shows in many different parts of the body, which means there are many different types. The types are classified according to the cell initially affected.

What is cancer?

Leukemia develops when abnormal cell division prevents the normal function of the bloodstream. All other types of cancer harm the body when abnormal cell division forms lumps, called tumors.

These tumors can then cause problems in the nervous system, digestive track and circulatory systems and release extra hormones that may alter normal body functions.

Not all tumors are dangerous. Some have limited growth and stay in the same spot. In most cases these are benign, however, if they do cause problems, they can generally be removed without any further complications.

Dangerous tumors, called malignant, form when:

a) cancerous cells are able to use the blood stream or lymph system to move throughout the body, destroying healthy tissues along the way – this is called invasion
b) a cell is able to divide and grow, creating new blood vessels for which to feed on – this is called angiogenesis

A metastasized tumor is one that successfully grows and spreads, destroying healthy tissue throughout the body. This results in a serious and nearly untreatable condition. Cancer claims about seven million lives per year around the world.

What Causes Cancer?

The word "cancer" is defined as uncontrollable cells that continue to grow without dying off. Normal cells have a regular cycle of growing, dividing and dying.

When this cycle is interrupted, cancerous tumors begin to form. Because cancerous cells don't follow the cycle and die when they are supposed to, they continue to divide and grow, resulting in large masses of abnormal cells.

What is Cancer? DNA Genes

If there is damage or a mutation in DNA, cells may begin to grow uncontrollably, thereby damaging the genes associated with cell division. The four main genes involved in the cell division process are:

What is cancer? DNA plays a part.
  • oncogenes – tell the cells when it's time to divide
  • tumor suppressive genes – instruct cells when they should not divide
  • suicide genes – control programmed cell death and tell an abnormal cell to die off
  • DNA repairing genes – tell cells to repair DNA that is damaged

Cancerous cells form when a cell is unable to repair damaged DNA and when it is unable to kill itself.

Likewise, when the oncogenes and tumor suppressor genes malfunction and lead to uncontrollable growth in the cell.

What is Cancer? Carcinogens

Substances directly responsible for damaging DNA and aiding in the growth of cancer are called carcinogens. Well known carcinogens include:

  • tobacco
  • arsenic
  • asbestos
  • radiation, including X-rays and gamma rays
  • over-exposure to the sun
  • compounds from exhaust fumes

Exposure to carcinogens cause free radicals to form and take electrons from other molecules in the body. This causes damage to cells and affects their normal function.

What is Cancer? Family Type Genes

Some types of cancer are hereditary.

Even if the parents themselves don't have cancer, their children could have certain inborn genetic mutations or faulty genes, making them statistically more prone to developing cancer later in life.

What is Cancer? Other Possible Causes

Normal aging increases the possibilities of cancer-causing mutations to develop in DNA. This means age is also considered a risk factor.

Several viruses have been directly or indirectly linked to causing cancer:

  • human papillomavirus – linked to cervical cancer
  • hepatitis B and C – may cause liver cancer
  • Epstein-Barr virus – linked to some childhood cancers
  • HIV and any other viruses that suppress or weaken the immune system increase the possibility of developing cancer

What is Cancer? Symptoms of Cancer

Since there are so many different types of cancer, and can strike in just about any part of the body, the symptoms are varied.

Symptoms largely depend on the location of the cancer, how far it has spread and the size of the tumor.

Some tumors can be felt or seen, such as a lump on the breast or testicle, which may mean cancer is present in those locations.

Melanoma (skin cancer) can often be detected by a change in the size or color of a mole or wart.

Some types of oral cancer show up as white patches in the mouth or on the tongue.

Other types of cancer have less apparent symptoms. Brain tumors tend to affect normal cognitive functions in the early stages of the disease.

Cancerous growths in the pancreas are usually too small to present symptoms until the pushing on nearby nerves causes pain, or when they interfere with the function of the liver, which causes the skin and eyes to yellow (jaundice).

Some symptoms are the result of a tumor pushing against bloods vessels and vital organs. For example, diarrhea, constipation and any change in stool size can be a symptom of colon cancer.

Prostate or bladder cancers may affect bladder function and interfere with normal urination.

Cancer cells feed on energy from the body and interfere with the normal function of hormones. This means symptoms such as fatigue, fever, anemia, excessive sweating and sudden, unexplained weight loss can all be indicators of cancer.

However, these are common symptoms of many other illnesses, as well. Excessive coughing may indicate lung cancer, or it may just be a bad cold, strep throat or some other condition.

What is Cancer? Classifying Cancer

Cancer is classified into one of five main categories.

  1. Carcinomas – these are characterized by cells covering external or internal body parts such as the colon, breast or lung.
  2. Sarcomas – these affect cells in the cartilage, bone, connective tissue, bone, muscle or other supportive tissues.
  3. Lymphomas – this type of cancer begins in the lymph nodes and tissues in the immune system.
  4. Leukemia – this type begins in the bone marrow and often accumulates in the bloodstream.
  5. Adenomas – these develop in glandular tissues such as the thyroid, adrenal gland or the pituitary gland.

Many types of cancers can now be successfully treated or at least controlled. Early detection greatly improves the odds of survival.

DISCLAIMER: The information on this website is presented as information only. It is not intended to supplement or replace professional medical advice. If you suspect that you are suffering from cancer or any other illness, then you should see a qualified doctor as soon as possible. In case of medical emergency, contact your emergency services immediately.

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