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About Cancer



Cancer Overview

Cancer is a global disease that affects people of all ages, gender, and ethnicities. Cancer affects everyone.  No family is immune from this disease.   According to the American Cancer Society, over 1.4 million new cases were diagnosed along with more than 559,000 deaths from cancer in 2008 in the United States alone.1 Cancer is second only to heart disease in the total number of deaths in the United States, and is one of the leading causes of mortality in the world. While these statistics may seem alarming, there is hope. Nearly 40% of all cancers can be prevented, many even cured2. Overall, cancer death rates are declining with advances in screening, early detection, development of new treatments through innovative research. Reducing risk factors such as: smoking, excessive sun exposure, alcohol consumption, and unhealthy lifestyles are also contributing to the decline of cancer cases and deaths.


1. American Cancer Society. Cancer Facts & Figures 2007. Atlanta: American Cancer Society; 2007.
2. World Health Organization. WHO Website Home Page 2008. World Health Organization; 2008.


What is Cancer?

Cancer is made up of more than 100 different diseases. In short cancer begins when cells in our body become abnormal in their genetic make-up.  These cells lose normal properties that control growth and orientation to other cells.  When these abnormal cells gain the ability to move beyond their normal location they invade surrounding tissue and spread to other sites.


The growth of the tumor can be either benign or malignant. Benign tumors are not cancerous by definition because they do not spread nor considered life threatening, but they can pose a risk of health issues depending on their size and location. If abnormal cells continue to divide and multiply rapidly, they form a malignant cancerous tumor which can invade other tissues, organs, and travel through the bloodstream and lymph systems. Once this occurs, the cancer can cause significant illness and death.


Cancer Types

Although there are actually more than 100 different types of cancer, there are five, major classifications by which cancer are categorized:


Carcinomas - are tumors that originate in the body’s tissues that line internal organs, ie breast, colon and stomach


Sarcomas /Melanoma– are tumors that begin from bone, muscle, cartilage, fat, connective tissue, or skin


Leukemias – are tumors that arise from, blood-forming organs or tissues; ie bone marrow


Lymphomas – are cancers that begin in the cells of lymph nodes


Central Nervous System – are cancers that originate in the tissues of the brain and spinal cord


Cancer Causes

Believe it or not, cancer may be prevented in many cases by limiting environmental risk factors of daily life. Smoking, excessive sun exposure, alcohol abuse, and poor nutrition all increase the risk of cancer. While eliminating all of these risk factors doesn’t guarantee cancer from developing, combining a strategy of routine screenings and healthy lifestyle choices can decrease the chances of becoming a cancer patient. Environmental risk factors may include:


  • Poor nutrition
  • Obesity
  • Tobacco products
  • Particular chemicals
  • Ultraviolet radiation
  • Particular  viruses or bacteria


Many causes of cancer are deemed hereditary. It is estimated that nearly 20% of all cancers have identified genetic signatures and can be passed through families. Maintaining routine screenings and genetic testing can often reduce the risk of cancer. The features of hereditary cancer may include:

  • More than one relative with cancer
  • Rare or unusual types of cancer
  • Cancers occurring at early ages
  • Multiple cancer diagnoses
  • Cancers arising in particular ethnic groups


Cancer Symptoms

Although there are often no true symptoms for all types of cancer, numerous diagnostic tests are now available for identifying cancer. Some warning signs include:

  • Bowel or bladder changes
  • Lump in the breast or other body part
  • Excessive or unusual bleeding or discharge
  • Non-healing sore throat, continual cough or hoarseness
  • Indigestion
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • mole changes

Cancer Detection & Diagnosis

Many methods currently exist in the diagnosis and detection of cancer. In the future, new diagnostic tools, devices, and techniques will be readily available in the prevention of cancer. The most common diagnostic methods now include:


Biopsy – A surgical specimen of a small tissue sample is removed and examined under a microscope to determine the existence of any cancer cells. Biopsies are primary done with local anesthesia and can be performed rather quickly.


Endoscopy – A plastic tube is inserted into the body with a tiny camera to view the organs and cavities. Many types of scopes are utilized throughout the body, depending on the specific region.


Imaging – There are four main types of primary scans that are used to determine the internal body structure and its physiology.

  • X-rays - most common
  • CAT scan (Computerized Axial Tomography) – precise, clearer than x-ray
  • MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) – measures soft tissue, blood vessels & organs
  • Ultrasound – high-frequency sound waves determine suspicious lumps
  • Blood tests – can detect tumor markers (substances released by tumors in the blood)


Cancer Treatment

Cancer treatment options are generally divided amongst four main categories and they can be utilized alone or in combination with one another. Several factors determine the treatment option including the location, size, and stage of the tumor and the health of the patient. The most common forms of treatment for cancer are:


Surgery – The most common form of treatment for cancer is through a surgical procedure. It is estimated that more than half of cancer patients will undergo some form of surgical procedure for cancer.


Chemotherapy – Powerful cancer-treating drugs are utilized to kill cancer cells or control growth. While often effective, many drugs often have side effects which can appear troublesome.


Radiation – About half of all people with cancer are treated with some form of radiation. It can be internal or external and it uses ionizing radiation to destroy cancer cells and shrink tumors.


Immunotherapy – Also known as biologic therapy, immunotherapy triggers the body’s immune system to fight cancer and even lessen side effects caused by other cancer treatments.



Alternative Treatments

New, effective treatments in the fight against cancer are being developed, researched, and tested every day in laboratories globally. Ongoing scientific advancements in the treatment of cancer are also available in the form of gene therapy or clinical trials:


Gene Therapy – A relatively newer approach in cancer research, gene therapy focuses on the identification of genes that cause cancer or increase risk. Currently, gene therapy is an experimental treatment that involves injecting genetic material into cells to prevent the disease from spreading.


Clinical Trials – Many cancer research facilities are developing alternative treatment options for cancer patients that do not respond well to standard therapies. These treatment options are available in the form of a “clinical trial” which is tested on human subjects.

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