What is cancer? This seemingly simple question would make a lot of people think a lot once they were asked it. While, due to changing environment and aging of societies, we meet more and more people who undergo therapy, we often have no idea what is it, apart from the fact that it is deadly or harmful to our bodies.
There is another question asked by a lot of people is “Why cancer hasn’t been cured yet?".
While billions have been invested and spent on cancer research over many years, it’s not unfair to ask the question. However, as research progressed, researchers faced the realization that cancer is a very complex condition. Cancer is not one single disease, and as it has over 100 types, one-shot treatment seems unlikely so far.
Every effort to educate about causes, prevention, and treatment seems then a reasonable one, and we will attempt to fill out information gaps in those of you who wonder a lot about it but are afraid to ask for basics or have a hard time looking it up online.
Cancer is a disease during which body cells start to multiply without limits. Moreover, cancer cells do not serve the specific purposes the other cells do and may spread outside of the body part they have originated from. Damaged cells are dangerous for a variety of reasons. They can either grow exponentially in one place leading to changes in organs and suppressing their functions (an especially dangerous scenario in brain cancers) or spread throughout the body, leading to similar effects in the whole organism. For example, cancer cells in the lung can travel to the bones and start to grow there. The spreading of cancer cells is called metastasis. When lung cancer spreads to the bones, lung cancer still exists. Because cancer cells in the bones look just like the ones from the lung. The disease is not called bone cancer unless it started in the bones.
While we speak about cancer as one type of disease, we may define it that it is characterized by out of control spreading of damaged cells. We often hear about the stages of cancer. For determining the clinical stage of cancer, physical exam, and several tests are applied to the patients. These may include blood and other lab tests and imaging scans. This is an estimate of how far cancer has spread.
Stage four means the most advanced phase of it, in which often palliative care is the only option for cancer treatment.
While speaking about types, firstly we can differentiate between benign and malign cancers. In benign types, damaged cells grow only in a selected body part and do not spread outside of it. For this reason, the treatment of benign cancers is relatively easy – surgery may be sufficient. Many people healthily live with benign tumors. Some types of benign tumors such as nevi or moles may never need treatment. Although benign tumors are sometimes painful and potentially dangerous, they do not pose a threat like malign tumors do. Malign cells are more tend to metastasize.
Malign cancers answer the therapy more difficult and require a multilevel approach involving chemotherapy or radiation for cancer.
Apart from the benign and malign division on the basic, there are many types of cancers categorized depending on the body parts they appear on. Still, ‘brain cancer’ is not a single type of cancer. It is a general category for there are many variations of brain cancer developing from different cells, having various growth speeds, and affecting the body differently. To most common types of cancer belong to breast cancer, lung cancer, colon cancer, liver cancer, and stomach cancer, though others are also increasingly widespread due to many factors.
It may be discouraging to some people, but for many types, it is hard to say what causes it. Cancer cells may appear in seemingly healthy individuals who care about their well-being. At the same time, people with bad habits may not get cancer at all. Cigarette smoking, lack of physical activity leading to obesity, and alcohol consumption have been involved in previous studies as risk factors or causes of cancer at several organ sites. Cigarette smoking, known to increase the risk of lung cancer, is also associated with the risk of many other cancers including colon and breast. Physical activity is accepted as a protective factor for many cancers. Alcohol consumption has also been associated with increased risks of breast, lung, and colon cancer.
Additionally, some specific types can be caused by viruses, like cervix cancer which can be triggered by the HPV virus.
Awareness is the key to prevention. People after a certain age are asked for screening in search of signs of cancer. For example, women are invited to make periodical check-ups for breast cancer, while men should consider regular tests for prostate cancer.
Screening can help doctors detect and treat several types of cancer early before symptoms arise. Early detection is very important because finding an abnormal tissue or cancer earlier may result in treatment earlier. Cancer may be treated more difficult when symptoms appear.
The other step in prevention is limiting bad habits which may become causes, such as smoking, excessive drinking, and lack of physical activity. To ask yourself ‘How to prevent cancer?’ should be your first step towards a healthy future by building a healthier lifestyle including regular exercise and a balanced diet consisting of better foods, whole grains, and vitamins.
A cancer diagnosis has two pillars. One of them is prevention which, thanks to increasing awareness, starts to give significant results in successful treatments. The second pillar of a diagnosis is being vigilant and reacting to any possible cancer signs we spot. While there are no common symptoms in general, it is enough that we learn about signs of common types such as breast cancer, colon cancer, or lung cancer. For instance, any changes such as unusual moles, sores, or lumps in any area of the skin may be a sign of melanoma or another type of skin cancer.
Remember to inform your doctors about any abnormal symptoms – early diagnosis may save your life.
Thanks to ongoing cancer research, many patients can undergo quite successful therapy, especially if they had an early cancer diagnosis. Usually, treatment consists of one or more of the following treatments:
• Cancer Surgery – by this surgery we understand a treatment where doctors remove the whole or the part of one’s cancer to eliminate it or stop/limit its growth.
• Chemotherapy – in chemotherapy treatment, doctors attempt to destroy damaged cells with the use of powerful drugs.
• Radiation for Cancer – radiotherapy is often a supportive treatment for patients who already underwent either surgery or chemotherapy. In radiotherapy, patients receive a dose of radiation either as a pill (internal radiotherapy) or from a machine (external radiation for cancer).
There are also cancer treatments such as cancer drugs, hormone therapy, stem cell and bone marrow transplants, and Immunotherapy, apart from the first three most common ones.
In cancer research conducted in numerous centers around the world, new forms of therapy, such as targeted therapy and new generations of chemotherapy are developed, which is promising that the cancer survivor rates will steadily increase.
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