In most people's minds there is no scarier diagnosis than that of
cancer. Cancer is often thought of as an untreatable, unbearably
painful disease with no cure. However popular this view of cancer may
be, it is exaggerated and over-generalized. Cancer is undoubtedly a
serious and potentially life-threatening illness. For example, it is
the leading cause of death in Americans under the age of 85, and the
second leading cause of death in older Americans. There will be 1.3
million new cases of cancer occuring in the coming year, and over
500,000 deaths because of it. However, it is a misconception to think
that all forms of cancer are untreatable and deadly. The truth of the
matter is that there are multiple types of cancer, many of which can
today be effectively treated so as to eliminate, reduce or slow the
impact of the disease on patients' lives. While a diagnosis of cancer
may still leave patients feeling helpless and out of control, in many
cases today there is cause for hope rather than hopelessness.
Our goal in this section is to educate you on the basics of cancer and
cancer treatment. Possessing this knowledge will, we hope, help you to
better understand what cancer is, how it occurs, and how to make
informed choices about cancer care options.
What is Cancer?
Your body is composed of many millions of tiny cells, each a
self-contained living unit. Normally, each cell coordinates with the
others that compose tissues and organs of your body. One way that this
coordination occurs is reflected in how your cells reproduce
themselves. Normal cells in the body grow and divide for a period of
time and then stop growing and dividing. Thereafter, they only
reproduce themselves as necessary to replace defective or dying cells.
Cancer occurs when this cellular reproduction process goes out of
control. In other words, cancer is a disease characterized by
uncontrolled, uncoordinated and undesirable cell division. Unlike
normal cells, cancer cells continue to grow and divide for their whole
lives, replicating into more and more harmful cells.
The abnormal growth and division observed in cancer cells is caused by
damage in these cells' DNA (genetic material inside cells that
determines cellular characteristics and functioning). There are a
variety of ways that cellular DNA can become damaged and defective. For
example, environmental factors (such as exposure to tobacco smoke) can
initiate a chain of events that results in cellular DNA defects that
lead to cancer. Alternatively, defective DNA can be inherited from your
As cancer cells divide and replicate themselves, they often
form into a clump of cancer cells known as a tumor. Tumors cause many
of the symptoms of cancer by pressuring, crushing and destroying
surrounding non-cancerous cells and tissues.
Tumors come in two forms; benign and malignant. Benign tumors are not
cancerous, thus they do not grow and spread to the extent of cancerous
tumors. Benign tumors are usually not life threatening. Malignant
tumors, on the other hand, grow and spread to other areas of the body.
The process whereby cancer cells travel from the initial tumor site to
other parts of the body is known as metastasis.