What is cancer?
Cancer is defined as disease where cells in a particular area of the body divide without control and are able to spread to other tissues. Cancer cells from an original tumor can spread to other parts of the body through the blood and the lymph system. There are approximately 1.5 million new cases of cancer each year and over 500,000 deaths in the United States alone each year.
Cancer is actually a group of many different types of disease. The type of cancer is named for the type of cell or organ where it started. Liver cancer is cancer that began in the liver, prostate cancer is cancer that began in the prostate and so on.
A great deal of money and attention are bestowed each year to organizations and facilities seeking the answer to the questions, “What causes cancer?” and “How do we cure cancer?” Though scientists have not yet reached definitive answers, we are closer every day to know the cause and cure for cancer.
How does cancer develop?
Cancer begins at the cellular level. Normal cells become cancer cells when something in the process of cell division goes wrong. In a normal body, cells within a given area become old and die as a natural process of cellular turnover. They will be replaced in time with new cells through the process of cell division.
DNA, the genetic material of cells can become damaged or mutate. Some people are born with certain types of DNA that makes cancer more likely. In the case of cancer, a DNA mutation will turn on cell division even when it is not needed. New cells will be produced and a tumor may form. There are two types of tumors that develop from overgrowth of cells:
• -Benign Tumors
• -Malignant Tumors
Benign tumors are not cancerous. If they are large enough to require surgical removal, generally they can be removed without difficulty and the cells will not spread to other parts of the body.
Malignant tumors are cancerous and must be removed or killed through radiation or chemotherapy. Cells from a malignant tumor can spread to different parts of the body through the bloodstream or lymph system and grow new tumors wherever they land by a process called metastasis. The newly metastasized tumor will be the same kind of tissue as the original tumor. For example if a patient has lung cancer and it metastasizes to the brain, the new tumor will be composed of lung cancer cells growing wildly in the brain.
What causes cancer?
Medical Scientists have been searching for many years for both the cause and cure for different types of cancer. Due to new discoveries of both prediction of cancer and development of advanced treatments, cancer rates are slowly declining for both men and women but the rate of cancer in the world is still alarmingly high.
Some contributors to cancer development may be:
• -Environmental factors
• -Genetic Susceptibility
• -Increased Age
• -Viruses or other organisms
Environmental exposure is thought to be a factor in what causes cancer. Things such as air pollution, chemical contamination in the food and water supply may contribute to genetic mutation and triggering of cancer cell development. For example, smoking is a known contributor to lung cancer and continuous tanning is a known contributor to skin cancer.
Genetics appear to play a large role in some types of cancer. For example a woman with first and second degree relatives (such as mother, aunt, grandmother) who have had breast cancer may be at a much greater risk for developing breast cancer herself. Geneticists are working hard to discover specific DNA patterns or markers that can predict who may develop cancer.
Age can also be a contributor as the longer one is alive, the more likely it is that DNA material will mutate and lead to tumor development. For example, Colon cancer rates are much higher among those aged 50 and above. Colon cancer screening is highly recommended for persons of high risk.
There is also some thought that viruses may contribute to the development of cancer. To this end, vaccines are being considered and developed as a possibility for prevention and treatment of cancer. For example, a person who has had Hepatitis is more likely to develop liver cancer.
What are the different types of cancer?
There are as many types of cancer as there are cells in the body. Some of the more common types include:
• Lung Cancer affects over 200,000 yearly and contributes to the death of nearly 160,000
• Breast Cancer affects nearly 194,000 yearly and contributes to the death of over 40,000
• Prostate Cancer affects nearly 193,000 yearly and contributes to the death of over 27,000
• Colon Cancer affects nearly 150,000 yearly and contributes to the death of over 40,000
• Skin Cancer (melanoma) affects nearly 70,000 yearly and contributes to the death of over 8,000
How is cancer treated?
Cancer is traditionally treated with one or more different types of therapy and though new advances are made daily in the treatment of cancer, the mainstay treatments still involve:
Surgery will often be required to remove tumor tissue. The type of surgery and risk to the patient will depend on the size and location of the tumor. The surgeon will attempt to remove allof the tumor and a portion of health, non cancerous tissue to ensure that all cancer cells are removed. If even one cancer cell is left behind, a new tumor can start at the same location. Because of this fact, most patients will have to undergo chemotherapy, radiation or both in addition to the surgery.
Radiation is the bombardment of tissue with specialized medically radioactive energy. Radiation is aimed at reducing tumor size or ridding the body of leftover tumor cells. There are two basic types of radiotherapy. External Beam Radiation is the focusing of energy waves using computer assisted pictures of the tumor to focus the radiation on the tumor and not on surrounding tissue. A new type of external beam radiation called Tomotherapy uses slice by slice deposition of radiation in a method that is similar to the CT scan technology. Brachytherapy involves the surgical placement of small beads or rods of radioactive material at the tumor site.
Both types of radiation therapy have side effects such as nausea and vomiting, fatigue, immune suppression and loss of hair. Many patients will have to undergo several treatments in addition to other therapies such as surgery or chemotherapy.
Chemotherapy, though necessary for many, can be one of the most difficult treatments in a person’s life. Though fraught with many unpleasant side effects, some of which are severe, chemotherapy has been known to cause remission or cure in many different forms of cancer. It can be used as a single treatment for cancer or as part of a multimodal therapy regimen including surgery or radiation. There are literally hundreds of chemotherapy medications and combination regimens which are each specifically designed for the type of cancer present. Most patients will experience side effects such as nausea, vomiting, immune suppression, fatigue and hair loss to one degree or another, some of which may be severe and debilitating.
New therapies such as angiogenesis, photodynamic therapy and hyperthermia treatments are showing great promise. Angiogenesis works by cutting off the blood supply to the tumor. Photodynamic therapy is the infusion of light sensitizing chemicals which concentrate in the tumor and are then exposed to laser light causing oxidation and death of tumor cells. Hyperthermia and cryogenic surgery use heat and cold to treat the tumor. Many additional treatments are currently being investigated in clinical studies worldwide.
How can I avoid cancer?
The only way one can avoid cancer is to know your risks and eliminate risk taking behaviors such as smoking, drinking, environmental toxin exposure and excessive tanning. One should also discuss hormone treatments with a physician with regards to increased cancer risk.
Finally, stress is a known contributor to cancer. One should strive to eat healthy foods, get plenty of rest and exercise appropriately along with reducing stress to ensure that the body is as healthy as possible to avoid cancer.