Understanding Cancer and it’s Treatments

We’ve had a couple of articles involving cancer over the last couple of months.  As with all our articles, we try and link to authoritative, educational articles for further reading.  With cancer, we ran into some interesting problems:  it’s easy to find articles on specific cancers, articles that have very light descriptions of what cancer is, and articles that are highly technical, but nothing that fell into a middle ground we wanted to present as a primer on cancer.  Here’s our primer on cancer – understanding it, it’s origins, it’s survivability, and it’s treatments.  Along the way, we’ll be using examples from two very different cases of cancer:  Becky Hill’s lung cancer mentioned in the previous article, and my own case of Basal Cell Carcinoma – cancers that are very much at opposite ends of the spectrum.

What Is Cancer?

Cancer isn’t a disease unto it’s self.  Instead, it’s a descriptor used for a over 100 diseases that all have something in common.  Your body’s cells divide to replace older dying, missing, or damaged cells.  This is just part of the body keeping us healthy.  This is done at a fairly controlled rate, and the body limits everything about the process.

Cancer is when that process goes wrong.  For one reason or another, cells begin dividing at an uncontrolled rate, forming a tumor in the case of most types of cancer.

The term tumor isn’t always in reference to a case of cancer.  Tumors come in two types:  benign and malignant.  Benign tumors aren’t cancerous – they represent an inflammation or uncontrolled cell growth in the body, but unlike cancer, it doesn’t spread to other parts of the body.  Malignant tumors, on the other hand, are bad news.  They are cancerous, and can begin spreading to nearby tissue, then other portions of the body.  And, the further it spreads, the harder it becomes to treat.  The process of spreading has a name:  metastasis.

Metastatic cancer is where cancer begins growing cells in another area – for instance, melanoma, a skin cancer, can begin entering the bloodstream or the lymphatic system.  At that point it has access to the entire body.

There are forms of cancer for nearly every organ and system in the body where cells are active and growing.  For instance, it’s not possible to have cancer of the hair.  Hair isn’t living or reproducing cells.

Symptoms of Cancer

There’s a common online joke that when someone checks any of their symptoms using WebMD, it says they have cancer.  There’s a good basis for that joke, though.  In Becky Hills case, the initial symptom that made her check with Rae Lyn Mefford was shoulder pain – but, in her case, it was lung cancer.  For me, it was a pimple on my face that never resolved and eventually became an open wound that wouldn’t heal.

As mentioned in the first section, cancer isn’t just a single disease, so “symptoms of cancer” vary wildly from unexplained pain to flu-like symptoms that don’t seem to get better.  Here’s a quick list of various symptoms of cancer:

  • Unexplained Weight Loss
  • Unexplained Pain
  • Sores that don’t heal
  • Fever
  • Tiredness
  • Changes in the texture or color of skin
  • Changes in bowel habits
  • Trouble Swallowing
  • Problems Breathing
  • Lumps on the body
  • Cough that doesn’t go away
  • Coughing up blood
  • Unusual bleeding

With over a hundred types of cancer, using an online search to diagnose anything is a great way to end up unreasonably worried.  Instead, if you’re not feeling well, or you have a change (such as a lump in your breast or testicles), see your medical professional.  They’ll do a much better job of diagnosing the problem than the internet!

Stages of Cancer

In addition to the many types of cancer, there are also various stages to describe how widespread (and dangerous) the cancer has become.

Stage 0: Pre-cancerous tissue.  There are abnormal cells, and currently they haven’t formed into what would be considered cancer.  In my case, because of my previous case of basal cell carcinoma, my medical professional treats any new growths as a preventative measure, reducing the risk of of further growth.

Stage I: At this point, the cancer is small and contained.

Stage II: Cancer has begun to grow and may include lymph nodes near the tumor.

Stage III:  Cancer has begun to spread away from the original part of the body affected, including lymph nodes.  This is where Becky Hill’s lung cancer was discovered.

Stage IV:  Cancer has now taken hold in another part (or parts) of the body beyond where it started.

Common Origins of Cancer

Not all cancer comes from the same cause.

Genetic:  Sometimes, the potential for cancer lies within our parents.  Certain forms of cancer “runs in the family”, including some forms of breast and colon cancer.

Lifestyle: Inactivity and obesity have been directly linked to increased risks of certain types of cancer.  Obesity, for instance, is implicated in some cases of breast cancer.  Estrogen is a natural hormone, but in abundance it increases the likelihood of breast cancer.  Fat tissue produces estrogen, so the more fat tissue you have, the more estrogen, and higher chance of breast cancer.  That’s not the only cancer associated with lifestyle, though: esophageal, pancreatic, kidney, thyroid, colon, rectal, and uterine cancer are all associated with it.

Physical Exposure: One of the most well known physical exposure causes of cancer is asbestos, an insulation and building material used in the mid to late 20th century.  Breathing asbestos fiber increases the risk of lung cancer.

Chemical: What we eat and drink often has an impact on our chances of cancer, including the packaging.  BPA, found in certain plastics, is now suspected as a potential carcinogen, and many manufacturers have changed their packaging to reduce the risk.

Infection: Certain viral infections have been connected to cancer.  Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) is very closely related to cervical cancer, and loosely connected with penile, anal, and esophageal cancers.

Radiation:  Radiation is all around us, in one form or another.  However, more intense levels of radiation run the risk of certain types of cancer.

“Bad Luck”: When new cells are produced, the DNA inside them – the map that determines what they are, how they reproduce, and what chemicals they produce – produces a new copy.  While most cancer is caused by a mutation from the list of items above, ‘bad luck’ has been used to describe what happens when that copying process breaks down, and produces an a version of the DNA with errors.  Sometimes this produces a cell that simply dies, sometimes it produces a cell that begins cancer.  How frequently this happens is a matter of debate.

Medical Procedures: Chemotherapy and radiation treatments can eliminate cancer, but they also run the risk of causing further cancers.  While it may seem like some treatments would be a bad idea because of the risks, there’s two factors involved here:  first, treating the existing cancer is important to saving a life.  Second, the risk of further cancers isn’t nearly as high as the risk of not treating the initial cancer.

Continue to Part II for Treatments, Prevention, and the Future of Cancer

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Header image:  Basal Cell Carcinoma, Small Cell Carcinoma, Squamous Cell Carcinoma, Signet Ring Cell Carcinoma, Medullary Carcinoma of the Colon, all from Flickr