What is cancer?
The term “cancer” is a very common one. It is an umbrella term that defines a large group of diseases where bad cells divide rapidly and spread very fast to other organs or tissues. Cancer is one of the major causes of death in the world.
Cancer and metastasis
A healthy body is made up of trillions of cells. These cells grow and divide, thus helping your body to function well. Healthy body cells have a specific life cycle. They have a programmed cycle of reproduction and death. Your body produces new cells to replace the old or dead ones. When you have cancer, this process is disrupted resulting in abnormal growth of cells. Cancer is caused by DNA mutations or changes.
Every human cell has DNA. The DNA carries instructions that determine the functions of each cell, and how it should grow and divide. DNA’s undergo mutations frequently. However, these errors are usually corrected by the cells. If a mutation error isn’t corrected, the cell may become cancerous.
Mutations can prevent the death of cells that ordinarily should die. These cells survive and grow uncontrollably, resulting in the formation of tumors. Tumors cause many health problems, depending on where they grow in the body.
It is however important to note that not all tumors are cancerous. Benign tumors cannot spread to other tissues. In some instances, they can become very large and cause problems when they press against nearby tissues and organs. On the other hand, malignant tumors have cancer properties and can affect other parts of the body.
Cancer cells can also move through the lymphatic system or bloodstream to distant parts of the body. The process by which this happens is called metastasis. Metastasized cancers are more advanced than cancers that have not. Metastatic cancers are more difficult to treat and are also more fatal.
Types of cancer
Cancers are named based on the area in which they start as well as the type of cell they are made of. It doesn’t matter to which parts of the body they spread. For instance, cancers that begin in the lungs and spread to the colon or liver will still be known as lung cancers and treated as such. Doctors also identify certain general kinds of cancer by different clinical terms:
- Myeloma and lymphoma are cancers that affect the immune system
- Leukemia is a cancer of the bone marrow. Blood cells are created in the bone marrow.
- Sarcoma is cancer that affects connective tissues like muscles, bones, blood vessels, and cartilage.
- Carcinoma is cancer that originates from the skin or tissues lining other organs.
Risk factors for cancers and their treatment
The primary cause of cancers is mutations or changes to DNA in the cells of your body. A person can inherit genetic mutations. Mutations may occur after birth usually due to environmental factors. Some of these factors include:
- Over-exposure to the sun
- Exposure to a carcinogen (chemicals that cause cancer)
- Exposure to radiation
- Viruses, like the human papillomavirus
- Lifestyle factors, like physical activity and diet
The risk of having cancer increases as you get older. Some underlying health conditions may cause inflammation, thus putting you at risk of cancer. Ulcerative colitis is an example. Ulcerative colitis is a serious inflammatory bowel disease.
Knowing cancer risk factors can help you curtail those lifestyle choices that increase your risk. Experts have outlined some of the best ways to prevent cancer. They include:
- Avoid tobacco products and secondhand smoke.
- Eat a balanced diet
- Maintain a healthy weight and engage in physical activities for at least 30 minutes each day.
- Stay safe from the heat of the sun. Use sunglasses, avoid the sun between 10 am and 4 pm, apply sunscreen frequently, avoid tanning bed, and stay in the shade when possible.
- Receive vaccinations against viral infections that can cause cancer, like HPV and hepatitis B.
- Steer clear from risky behaviors. If you’re sexually active, be sure to practice safe sex and never share needles when using prescription medications or drugs. If you wish to get a tattoo, let it be done in a licensed parlor.
- Consult your doctor regularly for screening against cancer. This will help you to arrest cancers at the early stage.
There are different objectives for treating cancer. This depends on the type of cancer and how advanced they are. These goals include:
- Getting a cure: of course, this doesn’t apply to all cancers. Some cancers cannot be cured.
- Receiving primary treatment: all cancer cells in your body will be killed
- Providing adjuvant treatment: remnant cancer cells will be killed to minimize the risk of having another cancer attack.
- Providing palliative treatment: palliative treatment involves relieving symptoms that are associated with cancers, like pain and difficulty in breathing.
Common treatments for cancer include:
This removes most of the cancer cells
It involves using medications to kill cancer cells. These medications are usually toxic to the cells.
Radiation therapy for cancer is classified into two: brachytherapy and external beam radiation. In brachytherapy, beams of radiation are focused inside your body. On the other hand, external beam radiation involves focusing the beam outside your body to kill the cancer cells.
Bone marrow (stem cell) transplant
This involves using healthy stem cells to repair the diseased bone marrow. The stem cells are usually undifferentiated and have many functions. With a stem cell transplant, doctors can treat cancer with very high doses of chemotherapy.
It is also known as biological therapy. Immunotherapy for cancer involves using antibodies to make your immune system more sensitive to cancer. This will help the immune system to fight it off.
It blocks or removes those hormones that trigger some cancers. The goal is to stop the growth of cancer cells.
Cancer can also be treated with targeted therapy or alternative medicine. Targeted therapy involves using some specific drugs to interfere with molecules that help the growth and survival of cancer cells.
Alternative medicine helps to relieve the symptoms of cancer as well as the side effects of treatment like pain, fatigue, and nausea. Examples of alternative medicine are: