Cancer Basics

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Cancer Basics

What is cancer?

Cancer is a group of related diseases, which can develop in different organs of the body.

It’s a condition in which cells become abnormal and multiply out of control. Cancer can develop in any organ of the body. There are more than 100 different types of cancers, which are classified with respect to the organs or tissues they initially affect.

Top 8 New Cancer cases in Pakistan - 2020 (WHO)

Normal body cells are programmed in genes to multiply in a control manner. As a result, old cells die and are replaced by new healthy cells. This is a natural process and keeps repeating during the entire life span.

Cancer starts with a single cell or a few cells that carry genes that have some errors.

The cells that carry faulty genes (DNA) become abnormal and multiply too fast. Soon abnormal cells out number normal cells, consume most of the nutrients and occupy space; thus not allowing the normal cells to grow and perform normal body functions.

Cancerous cells initially pile at one place, damage surrounding cells and later travel to other body organs (called metastasize) and cause the spread of the disease in other body organs. Blood and lymph nodes play an important role in carrying these abnormal cells to other organs.

Cancer is a life-threatening condition. It is very important to detect and diagnose cancer as early as possible. People who have family history and other risk factors should go for cancer screening tests. If cancer is detected at early stage, it is very likely to be cured from it and stay healthy for decades.

What is a tumor?

Tumor is formed because of an abnormal growth of cells forming a lump or a swollen mass of tissue. Cancer may be caused because of a growth of a solid tumor, (such as a lump in lung, or breast). Cancers in blood or lymph (such as lymphoma or leukemia) do not form tumors.

Tumors can be of three main types:

Benign (meaning non-cancerous)

Benign tumor do not spread in other parts of the body and when removed do not grow back examples include, lipomas, fibroids and colon polyps.

Malignant Tumors (meaning cancerous)

Cells in a malignant tumor can quickly multiply and spread to other organs

Cancer is called metastasize cancers when it spreads from initial organ to the other organs.

Pre-malignant Tumors

These types of tumors are not cancerous but have potential to become cancerous later in life e.g. cervical dysplasia. These tumors require regular monitoring.

Types of cancer

There are more than 100 different types of cancer. The types of cancer can be further characterized into broader categories, including:

  • Carcinoma: This type of cancer originates in internal organ lining or the layer. There are many different subtypes, including: adenocarcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, basal cell carcinoma and transitional cell carcinoma.
  • Leukemia: This type of cancer originates in the bone marrow and other blood-forming tissues or blood cells.
  • Myeloma and lymphoma: These types of cancer originate in immune system cells.
  • Central nervous system cancers: This type of cancer originates in the spinal cord and brain.
  • Sarcoma: This type of cancer originates in the connective tissues, such as bone, fat, blood vessels, cartilage and muscle.

Most Common Types of Cancer worldwide

  • Skin cancer
  • Lung cancer
  • Breast cancer
  • Prostate cancer
  • Mouth and throat cancer
  • Ovarian cancer
  • Colorectal cancer
  • Blood cancers ( such as Leukemia)
  • Bladder cancer
  • Kidney cancer
  • Non Hodgkin’s lymphoma
  • Endometrial cancer
  • Thyroid cancer

Signs and symptoms of cancer vary with the type of cancer. However, there are some common symptoms that can occur with many different types of cancers.

  • Fatigue
  • Weight changes (losing weight or sudden weight gain)
  • Lump or swelling below the skin that can be felt (such as lump in breast)
  • Bowel or bladder habit changes
  • Unusual bleeding problems
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Persistent indigestion
  • Persistent and unexplained night sweats and fevers
  • Skin changes
  • Persistent cough
  • Hoarseness
  • Persistent and unexplained joint or muscle pain
Error in genes referred as DNA mutations are what causes cancer. These DNA mutations can be a result of accumulated damage to DNA over the years or due to abrupt mutation upon exposure to a strong carcinogen. These mutations can instruct a healthy cell to:
  • Not stop multiplying
  • Allowing rapid growth
  • Making mistakes during DNA error repair mechanism
Error in gene or mutations can be present at birth or they can occur at some point in life. The risk factors for cancer have the potential to cause some gene mutations. Common risk factors that are believed to increase the risk of cancer may include:
  • Being age 60 or older
  • Having a family history of cancer
  • Smoking cigarettes, chewing tobacco or drinking Alcohol
  • Being exposed to harmful chemicals or cancer causing agents (e.g. benzene)
  • Having certain health issues, such as ulcerative colitis
  • Some infections Hepatitis and Human papilloma virus

The screening methods vary, but the majority of cancers involve a combination of the following:

  • Physical examination
  • Imaging tests, such as X-rays, CT scans and MRI
  • Laboratory testing
  • Biopsy to look at a cell sample for abnormal changes

Blood tests are common and some of the most commonly ordered that include:

  • Complete blood count: This looks at various blood cells for abnormalities
  • Tumor marker testing: This looks at specific chemicals that tumor cells make
  • Blood protein testing: This looks at various proteins in the blood and it can detect an elevation of certain immune system proteins that can be elevated with the cancer multiple myeloma.

No two cancer treatments are exactly the same because each patient receives a targeted treatment regimen. However, the following treatments are common for a wide variety of cancers:

  • Surgery - This may be used to remove cancer
  • Radiotherapy - This is used to kill cancer cells using radiations
  • Biological therapy - This works to use the body's own immune system to battle cancer
  • Targeted drug therapy - This type of therapy focuses on cancer cell abnormalities
  • Chemotherapy - These are medicines used to kill cancer cells. They also harm normal body cells
  • Stem cell transplant - This introduces a person's own stem cells or a donor's stem cells in an attempt to cure cancer. A common example is a bone marrow transplant.
  • Hormone therapy - This removes hormones that are fueling a cancer. Common uses for this therapy include prostate cancer and breast cancer.

Cancer treatment choices vary with respect to stage of the cancer

Cancer stages are determined using different laboratory tests to detect the size and spread of the disease.

Stage 1 and 2 Cancers are usually not spread to other organs of the body.

Stage 3 and 4 Cancers are usually cancers that are spread to other organs of the body.

Complications vary with type of cancer in the patient. However, some general complications for cancer and the various treatments used include:

  • Pain
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Depression
  • Chemical changes within the body
  • Unusual immune system reactions
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Weight loss
  • Nervous system and brain problems
  • The cancer spreading
  • The cancer returning

Cancer can be a difficult diagnosis to cope with, so it is important to get help when necessary.

Living a healthy lifestyle is critical, so things like eating a balanced diet, staying hydrated and being active when possible can help to improve overall health and promote a higher level of well-being.

Life after cancer diagnosis changes in several ways. Dealing with pain after surgery and side effects of chemotherapy are difficult to handle. Many patients suffer with depression.

It is important to keep the hope alive. Prayers and family support help the patient to cope with it.

Also, it gives strength to the patient to know about other patients who had cancer and how they are dealing with it.

In recent years, many new medicines have been approved for many cancers. Many of them are quite effective. A significant number of patients survive and live reasonably-healthy life for decades.

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