What Is Cancer

Cancer is a term used to describe the uncontrollable growth of abnormal cells. There are more than 100 diseases that fit beneath the umbrella term of cancer. Cancerous cells can exist anywhere in the body, and may group together in masses of tissue known as tumors. Tumors, while often a sign of cancer, do not have to be cancerous. The natural aging process or certain health conditions can cause the formation of tumors.

According to the National Cancer Institute, the following are the most commonly diagnosed cancer types:

  • Bladder cancer
  • Breast cancer
  • Colon and rectal cancer
  • Endometrial cancer
  • Kidney (renal cell) cancer
  • Leukemia (blood and bone marrow)
  • Lung cancer
  • Melanoma (skin cancer)
  • Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma (immune system)
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Prostate cancer
  • Thyroid cancer

Cancer is a growing concern in America. About 4,400 new cases of cancer are diagnosed each day, translating to more than 1.6 million new cases of cancer each year. Almost 1,600 people die of cancer each day, and economic costs due to cancer are as high as $216 billion per year.

What Causes Cancer

Because the term “cancer” encompasses such a large variety of diseases, there is not a single cause of cancer. Fundamentally, cancer occurs when changes or mutations in the genetic material in the cell cause rapid division that cannot be controlled by the cell’s normal regulatory processes. Certain types of mutations are more common in cancer cells than others, such as mutations in the gene for the Ras protein signaling gene. However, there is not a single mutation that is common among all cancer types and patients. The causes of many cancers remain unknown.

The causes behind the genetic mutations are largely unknown. Researchers have identified many carcinogens, substances that have found to increase the risk of cancer. Exposure to carcinogens does not guarantee cancer development, and they are therefore not the sole cause of cancer.

Known carcinogens include:

  • Acetaldehyde (from alcoholic beverages)
  • Alcoholic beverages
  • Aluminum production
  • Asbestos and asbestos-containing substances
  • Chromium compounds
  • Estrogen/estrogen-progestogen postmenopausal therapy
  • Chronic hepatitis B or C infection
  • Human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) infection
  • Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) infection
  • Ionizing radiation
  • Outdoor air pollution
  • Plutonium
  • Radium-224/Radium 226 and decay products
  • Solar radiation
  • Tamoxifen
  • Tobacco (any tobacco-containing product or second hand smoke)
  • Ultraviolent (UV) radiation (UVA, UVB, UVC)
  • X-ray radiation

Risk Factors For Cancer

Though many causes of cancer remain unknown, there are several risk factors that are known to increase the risk of developing cancer. These include:

  • Age. Cancer is more common with age. This could be due to an increased exposure time to environmental/immunological factors, or a degradation of bodily proteins as the body ages.
  • Genetics. Individuals can be born with the mutations that cause certain cancers, or can inherit a susceptibility to mutations. Certain genes have been associated with specific cancer types, such as the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes with breast cancer. Both genes significantly raise the risk of breast cancer for the individual carrying the gene, however only about 3% of breast cancers are caused by the BRCA 1 and 2 genes.
  • Compromised Immunity. Individuals with immune disorders or those that have been exposed to viruses/bacteria such as Epstein-barr, HIV/AIDs, HPV, and H. pylori (bacterium that lives in the stomach) have been found to be at a higher risk of certain cancers.
  • Environment. Exposure to many environmental pollutants and chemicals can increase the risk of cancer. For a complete list of carcinogenic substances, visit The American Cancer Society.

Diagnosing Cancer

Diagnostic tests for cancer vary from type to type. Below are the most common diagnostic tests for cancer:

  • Barium Enema. During this exam, barium, a special dye that allows it to be visible with x-ray imaging, is injected into the rectum and colon through the anus. An x-ray is taken once the barium is inside the colon to reveal any polyps or inflammation that may be signs of colon cancer.
  • Biopsy. Biopsies are the most definitive of cancer diagnosis. A biopsy involves removing a portion of tissue from the suspected cancerous area and testing the sample for the presence of cancerous cells. Biopsies may also reveal that growths are benign, or non-cancerous.
  • Bone scan. A bone scan provides images of the bone that detect damage due to cancer.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). MRIs produce images that can be helpful in identifying carcinogenic growths within the body. An MRI can be used to capture images of any part of the body.
  • Colonoscopy. During a colonoscopy, doctors examine the colon through the use of a microscope probe. This can help to identify any abnormalities in the colon or rectum.
  • Computerized tomography (CT) scan. A CT scan can also produces images to help discover tumors and/or physical abnormalities.
  • Endoscopy. Through the use of a camera attached to a long, thin tube, doctors can view the inside of the body to detect tumors, inflammation, and physical abnormalities.
  • Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scan. During a PET scan, a small amount of radioactive material is injected into the body and is then given time to travel through your blood and collect in tissues and organs. PET images make the areas where the dye has settled more clearly visible, allowing doctors to get a closer look at potentially cancerous areas.
  • Integrated PET-CT scan. During this test, a PET scan and a CT scan are conducted simultaneously, producing more complete imaging than either scan could on its own.
  • Mammography. A mammography, or mammogram, allows doctors to see breast tissue through the use of x-ray imaging.
  • Pap test. Also called a Pap smear, a Pap test checks for cervical cancer and cervical irregularities.
  • Tumor marker tests. Also called biomarkers, tumor marker tests check for elevated levels of certain substances that are found in the blood, urine, and tissue of cancer patients.
  • Ultrasound. Ultrasound uses ultrasonic frequency to produce images of tissues and organs. Tumors can be detected through a difference in sound waves.

Symptoms of Cancer

Because of the broad range of possible cancers, there is an almost infinite list of possible cancer symptoms.

While the following symptoms are some of the basic signs of cancer, they can also be caused by a variety of other diseases. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, schedule an appointment with your doctor. He or she will be able to conduct the proper diagnostic tests to determine the cause of your symptoms.

According to the American Cancer Society, the following are signs and symptoms of cancer:

  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Pain
  • Skin changes (itching, redness, yellowing, darkening, excessive hair growth)
  • Change in bowel habits or bladder function
  • Sores that do not heal
  • White patches inside the mouth or white spots on the tongue
  • Unusual bleeding or discharge
  • Thickening lumps beneath skin (may be cancerous tumor)
  • Indigestion/trouble swallowing
  • Recent change in wart or mole
  • Nagging cough or hoarseness


The prognosis for cancer largely depends on the type of cancer and how early it is detected. When detected early, five year survival rates for cancer can be as high as 98%, with the average falling somewhere around 65%. When receiving a cancer prognosis, it is important to remember that the numbers given are estimates – patients often live shorter or longer than expected when the cancer course takes an unexpected turn.

Living With Cancer

Receiving a cancer diagnosis can be difficult for both you and your loved ones. The following tips can help you live more comfortably through your time of treatment and recovery:

  • Maintain a healthy, balanced diet. Proper nutrition is essential to help your body fight cancer throughout treatment and recovery. Speak to a dietitian about what foods are best for your cancer type and treatment method.
  • Try to keep a positive outlook, even if your prognosis and treatment aren’t as you had wished. Even on days when you are feeling bad, find something to appreciate or laugh about. The body needs the support of the mind in order to put up a good fight against cancer.
  • Don’t give up on what you love. Keep up with your favorite sports and hobbies. Occupying the body and mind can take away from the stress of treatment and recovery.
  • Build a strong support system. Don’t be afraid to be open with family and friends whom you trust. You may also want to consider joining a support group to share stories and experiences with others affected by your cancer type like those offered by the American Cancer Society.
  • Try relaxation techniques such as yoga, aromatherapy, massage, tai chi, and others to help control your stress and other symptoms.
  • Find new ways of entertainment if your treatment leaves you in bed or seated for long periods of time. Consider books, movies, and crossword puzzles.


Early detection of cancer and effective early treatment can significantly increase a patient’s chances of survival.

The American Cancer Society recommends the following early-detection methods:

Breast Cancer

  • Yearly mammograms for women 40 and older.
  • Clinical breast exam (CBE) every 3 years for women in their 20s and 30s, or more frequently for women with a family history or other risk factors

Colorectal Cancer

  • One of the following schedules:
    • Flexible sigmoidoscopy every 5 years
    • Colonoscopy every 10 years
    • Double-contrast barium enema every 5 years
    • CT colonography every 5 years
    • Yearly fecal occult blood test
    • Yearly fecal immunochemical test

Cervical Cancer

  • Women between the ages of 21 and 29 – Pap test every 3 years
  • Women between the ages of 30 and 65 – Pap test and HPV test every 5 years
  • Women over 65 – testing is not necessary unless there was evidence of pre-cancer in earlier tests.

Lung Cancer

  • Screening should be done only in at risk populations. Criteria for screening eligibility include:
    • Men and women aged 55 to 74
    • In good health
    • Have at least a 30 pack-year smoking history AND are either still smoking or have quit within the last 15 years

Prostate Cancer

  • Men over the age of 50 should talk to their doctors about the pros and cons of prostate cancer screening before making a decision about whether or not to test.

If you experience any usual or sudden changes in your body, report your symptoms to your doctor. These may be important warning signs of cancer or other serious conditions.


Cancer prevention is one of the most controversial topics among the scientific community today. Some people believe that eating certain diets, avoiding certain substances, and living in a particular way can help reduce the chance of developing cancer, though there is not enough evidence available to definitely support any of these theories.

You can, however, do your best to live a healthy lifestyle to support your body’s overall health. The following are tips for a healthy life:

  • Don’t smoke. Smoking raises your risk of cancer as well as many other serious diseases.
  • Eat a healthy diet low in cholesterol, saturated fats, and processed foods.
  • Drink plenty of liquid. Water is the best. Drinking enough liquids is essential to helping your body rid itself of toxins.
  • Exercise regularly, mixing up the activity when possible. Exercise is essential for maintaining bodily balance and relieving stress.

Medication And Treatment

There are a number of different treatment methods available for treating cancer. These include:

Chemotherapy. Chemo therapy, chemical therapy, or “chemo” is a term used to describe drugs used to treat cancer that kill cancer cells directly. Chemotherapy drugs are most often administered intravenously (through an IV inserted into a vein), though some chemo drugs come in pill, cream, or injection form. Chemotherapy drugs may be administered at home, at a doctor’s office, or in a hospital at the discretion of your doctor. Some doctors may choose to do successive chemo treatments; others may choose to space out the treatments to allow the body time to recover. Chemotherapy most often causes serious acute side effects, meaning they only last for the duration of the treatment. These may include:

  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Fever
  • Severe fatigue
  • Fragility/easy bruising
  • Loss of appetite/weight loss
  • Pain

Unfortunately, chemotherapy can also cause more long-lasting side effects. These include:

    • Tissue damage
    • Heart problems
    • Infertility
    • Kidney problems
    • Nerve damage
    • Risk of a second cancer

Radiation therapy. Radiation therapy uses concentrated radiation to directly damage the DNA of cancer cells, effectively killing them. Radiation is delivered through an external machine or through a medium placed inside of the body. Radiation therapy must be pin-pointed to the exact cancerous area because it kills both healthy and cancerous cells.

Acute side effects of radiation therapy include:

    • Nausea/vomiting
    • Diarrhea
    • Urinary and bladder changes
    • Trouble swallowing
    • Swelling
    • Sexual changes
    • Hair loss in area of treatment.
    • Skin changes

    Long term side effects may include:

    • Salivary gland damage
    • Change in skin color of treatment area
    • Breathing problems
    • Infertility
    • Sexual dysfunction
    • Chronic pain/soreness

Other cancer treatments include:

  • Immunotherapy. During immunotherapy, drugs are given to stimulate a natural immune response against cancerous cells.
  • Targeted therapies. For cancers where more is known about specific genetic causes, targeted therapies can more closely target the problem cell mutations
  • Differentiating agents. Differentiating agents cause cancer cells to mature (differentiate) into normal, healthy cells.
  • Hormone therapy. Hormone therapy can help slow the progression of breast, uterine, and prostate cancers.
  • Surgery. When cancer is found in only one part of the body and it is likely that all of the cancer can be removed, then curative cancer can be the main treatment.

Complementary and Alternative Treatment

Many cancer patients seek alternative modes of treatment as an alternative to modern medical approaches or when modern medical approaches have not been effective. However, there is limited scientific data to support the efficacy of any alternative mode of cancer treatment. The following treatment forms are listed as possible alternative cancer treatments by the National Cancer Institute:

Alternative medical systems offer their own approaches to cancer treatment. Popular alternative modes of medicine include:

  • Chinese medicine
  • Aryuvedic medicine
  • Homeopathic medicine
  • Naturopathic medicine
  • Traditional Chinese Medicine

Mind and body approaches can help to control symptoms and manage stress due to illness. These include:

  • Yoga
  • Tai Chi
  • Hypnosis
  • Aromatherapy
  • Meditation
  • Massage
  • Spirituality

Dietary approaches. Many nutritional experts believe that an appropriate is the key to fighting cancer. Possibly beneficial methods for cancer treatment include:

  • Coenzyme Q10
  • Gerson Therapy (combination of strict diet, nutritional supplements, and enemas)
  • Gonzalez Regimen (combination of pancreatic enzyme therapy, strict diet, nutritional supplements, and coffee enemas)
  • High-Dose Vitamin C

When To Contact A Doctor

If you notice any sudden changes in your body, energy level, or skin/hair, make an appointment with your doctor to determine the cause of the symptoms. The chances of bodily changes being cancer are rare, but early detection can greatly increase the chance of survival if it is cancer, so close monitoring and attentiveness is crucial.

If you are being treated for cancer, call your doctor if you experience any of the following:

  • A fever greater than 105F
  • Excessive bleeding or bruising
  • Rash/allergic reaction
  • Intense chills
  • Intense pain, including headaches
  • Persistent diarrhea/nausea
  • Difficulty breathing

Questions For A Doctor

If you have just been diagnosed with cancer, you may want to ask your doctors the following questions:

  • Is there a known cause of my cancer?
  • How far has my cancer progressed?
  • What are my chances of recovery?
  • What treatment options are available?
  • What are the risks and benefits of available treatments?
  • Will treatments affect my ability to conceive?
  • What can I do to improve my condition?
  • Is there anything I should not be doing because of my condition?

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