WHAT IS CANCER?
Cancer develops when cells in a part of the body begin to grow out of control. Although there are many kinds of cancer, they all start because of out-of-control growth of abnormal cells.
Normal body cells grow, divide, and die in an orderly fashion. During the early years of a person’s life, normal cells divide more rapidly until the person becomes an adult. After that, cells in most parts of the body divide only to replace worn-out or dying cells and to repair injuries.
Because cancer cells continue to grow and divide, they are different from normal cells. Instead of dying, they outlive normal cells and continue to form new abnormal cells.
Cancer cells develop because of damage to DNA. This substance is in every cell and directs all its activities. Most of the time when DNA becomes damaged, either the cell dies or is able to repair the DNA. In cancer cells, the damaged DNA is not repaired. People can inherit damaged DNA, which accounts for inherited cancers. Many times though, a person’s DNA becomes damaged by exposure to something in the environment, like smoking.
Cancer usually forms as a tumor. Some cancers, like leukemia, do not form tumors. Instead, these cancer cells involve the blood and blood-forming organs, and circulate through other tissues where they grow.
Cancer cells often travel to other parts of the body where they begin to grow and replace normal tissue. This process, called metastasis, occurs as the cancer cells get into the bloodstream or lymph vessels of our body. When cells from a cancer like breast cancer spread to another organ like the liver, the cancer is still called breast cancer, not liver cancer.
Remember that not all tumors are cancerous. Benign (non cancerous) tumors do not spread to other parts of the body (metastasize) and, with very rare exceptions, are not life-threatening.
Different types of cancer can behave very differently. For example, lung cancer and breast cancer are very different diseases. They grow at different rates and respond to different treatments. That is why people with cancer need treatment that is aimed at their particular kind of cancer.
Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States. Half of all men and one-third of all women in the US will develop cancer during their lifetimes. Today, millions of people are living with cancer or have had cancer. The risk of developing most types of cancer can be reduced by changes in a person’s lifestyle, for example, by quitting smoking and eating a better diet. The sooner a cancer is found and treatment begins, the better are the chances for living for many years.
WHO GETS CANCER?
Over one million people get cancer each year. Approximately one out of every two American men and one out of every three American women will have some type of cancer at some point during their lifetime. Anyone can get cancer at any age; however, about 77% of all cancers are diagnosed in people age of 55 and older. Although cancer occurs in Americans of all racial and ethnic groups, the rate of cancer occurrence (called the incidence rate) varies from group to group.
Today, millions of people are living with cancer or have been cured of the disease. The sooner a cancer is found and the sooner treatment begins, the better a patient’s chances are of a cure. That’s why early detection of cancer is such an important weapon in the fight against cancer.
HOW IS CANCER TREATED?
The number of treatment choices you have will depend on the type of cancer, the stage of the cancer, and other individual factors such as your age, health status, and personal preferences. You are a vital part of your cancer care team – you should discuss with them which treatment choices are best for you. Don’t be afraid to ask as many questions as you have. Make sure you understand your options. A cancer diagnosis usually gives people a sense of urgency in making choices about treatment and services. However, take the time to consider all the options available to you so you will be as well informed as possible.
The four major types of treatment for cancer are surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, and biologic therapies. You might also have heard about hormone therapies such as tamoxifen and transplant options such as those done with bone marrow.
WHAT TREATMENT WILL BE BEST FOR ME?
Your cancer treatment will be entirely based on your unique situation. Certain types of cancer respond very differently to different types of treatment, so determining the type of cancer is a vital step toward knowing which treatments will be most effective. The cancer’s stage (how widespread it is) will also determine the best course of treatment, since early-stage cancers respond to different therapies than later-stage ones. Your overall health, your lifestyle, and your personal preferences will also play a part in deciding which treatment options will be best for you. Not all types of treatment will be effective in your situation, so be sure that you understand your options. Don’t be afraid to ask questions; it is your right to know what treatments are most likely to help you and what their side effects may be.
Palliative versus Curative Goals: Before starting treatment, ask about the goal of treatment. Is the purpose of the treatment to cure the cancer, control it, or treat symptoms? Sometimes the goal of treatment can change.
CAN CANCER BE PREVENTED?
Smoking and drinking alcohol cause some people to get certain types of cancer. These cancers might be prevented by avoiding tobacco and alcohol. The best idea is to never use tobacco at all. Cigarettes, cigars, pipes and smokeless tobacco cause cancer and should not be used. People who already smoke should try to quit. Former smokers have less risk of cancer than do people who continue to smoke.
The chances of getting skin cancer can be lowered by staying in the shade as much as you can, wearing a hat and shirt when you are in the sun, and using sunscreen.
We know that our diet, (what we eat) is linked to some types of cancer, although the exact reasons are not yet clear. The best advice is to eat a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains like pasta and bread, and to cut down on high fat foods.
There are tests, called screening examinations, that adults should have in order to find cancer early. If cancer is found early it can often be cured.