Understanding Cancer – The First Step In Dealing With It – Part 1

Jul 26, 2023

What Is Cancer Few, if any, diseases have had so much written about them, had more research done on them or have evoked so much fear as cancer. A best-selling book about it was aptly titled “The Emperor of Maladies.” It has been man’s companion since the dawn of history and, as of now, shows no sign of going away. Cancer is a serious and often life-threatening medical condition – there can be no argument about that. However, the ongoing medical research into finding both cures and ways to prevent it from occurring have made great strides. Today people with many forms of cancer have good prospects of recovery and going on to live full, happy and productive lives.

Cancer can strike anyone, at any age. Understanding the disease and what it means are critical factors in giving a patient the knowledge and strength to deal with the condition and achieve remission. In the first part of this two-part blog, we will look at what cancer is. In the second we will look at the various forms the disease takes.

What Is Cancer

The human body is made up of trillions of cells. Cancer is a medical condition that is prevalent when some cells in one part of the body grow in an uncontrolled manner and spreads to other parts of the body. This can happen in any part of the body. Normal healthy cells grow old and become damaged over time and are replaced by new healthy cells through a process known as cell division. If this process does not happen as it should, the abnormal or damaged cells can start to multiply when they should not. These cells may then combine to form lumps of tissue known as tumours. In some cases, such as leukaemia and types of blood cancer, the damaged cells stay in the blood or lymphatic system and do not form solid tumours. Tumours may be of two types. Malignant tumours spread to other parts of the body and continue to grow, disrupting normal metabolic functioning. Benign tumours remain in one place and do not spread. If they are removed, they do not normally return and the problem is usually resolved. However, in some cases, even benign tumours can have serious consequences as in the case of benign brain tumours.

Cancer cells take space and nutrients away from healthy cells that need them to survive. When deprived of space and nutrients the healthy cells are unable to function properly. The organs, nerves or blood vessels that are invaded by cancerous cells are unable to function as they should and this starts a chain reaction that may eventually become fatal.

What Are Cancerous Cells

Cancerous cells are very different from the normal healthy cells of the body. Among the differences are:

  • Normal cells grow only when the system tells them to do so. Cancerous cells grow without receiving signals.
  • Normal cells stop growing or die naturally so they can be replaced when the body tells them to. Cancerous cells ignore such signals.
  • Normal healthy cells do not generally move around the body and when they encounter other cells, stop growing so the other cells are not damaged. Cancerous cells do not have any such limitations and move and attack healthy cells.
  • Cancerous cells attract blood vessels towards the tumours they form so that these lumps of tissue have the oxygen and nutrients they need to keep growing.
  • The body’s immune system normally eliminates abnormal or damaged cells from the system. Cancerous cells are able to hide from the immune system.
  • In some cases, the cancer cells may even be able to appear to be normal and so trick the immune system into protecting the “healthy” cells.
  • Cancer causes changes in the chromosomes of the cells which is where genetic information is stored.
  • Cancerous cells use different types of nutrients as compared to normal healthy cells. This often results in rapid uncontrolled growth.

Also Read: Understanding Cancer - The First Step In Dealing With It - Part 2

How Cancer Develops

Cancer is known as a genetic disease which means it is the result of changes to the genes that control how the cells function, including their growth and death. The reasons for changes to occur include:

  • Faulty cell division resulting in the production of damaged cells.
  • Changes to the body’s DNA due to environmental conditions such as pollution, exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays, etc.
  • Inheriting faulty genes from parents. Parents with these faulty genes may not themselves have had cancer.
  • The body tries to remove cells with defective DNA but with advancing age the ability to do this decrease. That is why, while cancer may happen at any age, the risk increases with advancing years.

When Cancer Spreads

A cancer that spreads from its place of origin to other areas of the body is called metastatic cancer. The process of this movement is called metastasis. Even though cancer may have spread to another part of the body, it is called by the same name as the area of its origin. In other words, lung cancer that forms a metastatic tumour in the breast is called lung cancer, not breast cancer.

If you or a family member/loved one is suspected of having cancer, it is vital that an appointment be made with the Oncology Department of a leading multispecialty hospital. Even if a diagnosis of cancer has already been made, a second option from such a specialized facility must be obtained. Once a diagnosis of cancer has been confirmed, oncologists will create a treatment plan that is individually tailored for each patient so as to ensure the best possible result. There are various treatment options available ranging from chemotherapy to radiation to surgery. Only an oncologist will be able to prescribe the right and most effective course of treatment.

Today more cancer patients, with an ever-widening range of cancers, are recovering and going on to live long and happy lives. Early diagnosis and treatment increase the possibility of remission/recovery.

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