What Is Cancer?
Patricia Zifferblatt | May 20, 2008

From a reader:
“Exactly what is cancer and why are we hearing so much about it these days? I’m not being stupid--I just don’t understand this disease.”

You’re very smart for asking a question about something very few people understand! I’ll give you a layman’s explanation in everyday terms. For more detailed information concerning a specific type of cancer, please talk to a health professional.

Cancer is an extremely complex disease in which cells in any part of the body begin to grow out of control. According to The American Cancer Society, during the early years of your life until you become an adult, normal cells divide more rapidly. After that, cells in most parts of the body divide only to replace worn-out or dying cells and to repair injuries.

Cancer cells, on the other hand, continue to grow and divide and instead of dying off, they outlive normal cells and continue to form abnormal cells. In a nutshell, cancer cells develop because of damage to the body’s DNA, the substance that is in every cell and controls and directs all cell activity. In a cancer cell, the DNA is damaged and never repaired, and the cell begins uncontrolled growth.

Cancer Comes in Many Forms
Different types of cancer grow in different ways and show up differently. Although most cancers start as a tumor, some cancers such as leukemia don’t form tumors--they involve the blood and the liquid parts of the body, then circulate throughout other tissues as they grow uncontrollably.

When cancers move on to other parts of the body, it’s called metastasis, but here’s something many people don’t realize: the new cancer has to be treated like the original cancer. An example: breast cancer that has spread or metastasized to the bone is still breast cancer and is treated as breast cancer even though it’s now in the bones.

Various types of cancer behave very differently--for example, there’s a big difference between lung cancer and breast cancer. These cancers grow at a different rate of speed and will respond to different treatments; they’ll be treated with different medicines and therapies. Some are fast growing and some are slow growing; in fact some cancers grow so slowly, your doctor may decide not to treat the cancer, but to simply keep an eye on it. Some may require radiation and some will require chemotherapy; some may require both.

Why are we hearing so much more about cancer these days? A few reasons:
  • Cancer is the Number Two killer of people in the U.S. and Canada, and the Number One killer of people under 65
  • We’re living longer, thus giving our cells more time to go astray
  • We have better diagnostic medicine than ever before, so cancer is being identified more often
  • We’re more aware of the many signs of cancer, and as a consequence more people are seeing a doctor earlier than ever before
  • And in a hopeful note, cancer researchers are making tremendous progress in learning how to prevent and treat the various forms of cancer--and that’s good news!
In the U.S. today, half of all men and a third of all women will be diagnosed with cancer. However more people than ever before are living longer and living well after being diagnosed with and treated for cancer. I’m living proof!

Cancer Prevention
There are certain cancers that can be prevented. Top of the list is melanomas caused by exposure to sunshine without the proper sunscreen or protective clothing. The habit of covering up and wearing a sunscreen before going outdoors can help prevent this very deadly type of cancer. In addition, you’re well advised to stay away from tanning beds!

Another obvious type of prevention is not smoking--it’s estimated that 90% of lung cancers are caused by smoking. As the number of smokers drops, lung cancer rates have declined.

Some other types of cancers are due to exposure to certain environmental chemicals and substances. Many of these have been identified and are being controlled by better manufacturing practices and better governmental control.

Don’t underestimate the importance of seeing your doctor at least annually and sooner at any sign of trouble. Regular PAP tests, vaginal exams, and mammograms have saved the lives of women throughout the world. PSA tests and digital rectal exams for men have saved many men’s lives. Getting regular blood tests, chest x-rays, and seeing a doctor for any unusual bleeding or growth is also the best advice. In other words, think smart when it comes to your body and report any and all persistent changes to your doctor.

Healthier diet and lifestyle habits have also been connected with the prevention or delayed onset of certain cancers--habits such as:
  • Not smoking
  • Limiting alcohol consumption
  • Exercising regularly
  • Eating lots of fresh fruits and vegetables that contain antioxidants
  • Limiting the amount of animal fats and increasing the amount of monounsaturated oils such as olive oil in the diet.
Cancer is a complex disease that requires professional intervention, but don’t think there’s nothing you can do. Improve your lifestyle and take good care of your body--it’s the only one you’ve got!
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