Learn the Cancer Basics


Few diseases capture the public’s imagination or trigger as much fear as cancer does. So what is cancer and how does it develop? How can an otherwise healthy body suddenly be attacked by its own cells?

What is Cancer?

The human body is made up of trillions of cells. Almost all of these cells divide to make new cells. When the cell becomes old or damaged, it is replaced by a new cell which starts the cycle over again.

Certain genetic events threaten this cycle, creating abnormal cells that live longer than they should, dividing and producing other abnormal cells that accumulate in the body. These cells are less specialized than normal cells and are capable of ignoring the body’s signals to stop dividing and die. This, at a very basic level, is how all cancers begin.

What Causes Cancer?

Many factors cause a cell to become cancerous. First, cells may be damaged due to environmental factors, such as smoking or exposure to carcinogenic chemicals. Next, as the body ages, the possibility of genetic errors during cell division increases, which can lead to uncontrolled cell growth. Lastly, inherited genetic mutations can also increase the person’s risk of developing cancer.

Cancer Types

Cancer describes over a hundred diseases caused by abnormal cell growth. These diseases can affect any area of the body. While each disease has its unique features, cancers can generally be divided into four categories:

  • Carcinomas are the most common form of cancer. A carcinoma begins in the skin or tissue involving the internal organs and usually forms a solid mass of abnormal cells called a tumor. Prostate, breast, lung, and colorectal cancers are all carcinomas.
  • Sarcomas develop in the body’s connective tissue, which includes the fat, muscles, nerves, tendons, joints, blood vessels, lymph vessels, cartilage, and bone.
  • Leukemias occur when healthy blood cells change and begin to grow uncontrollably.
  • Lymphomas are cancers of the lymphatic system, the interconnected ducts, organs, and vessels that are part of the body’s immune system.  

Cancer Terms You Need to Know

If you or a loved one develops cancer, you’ll need to understand some basic cancer terms. Below are some of the most common cancer terms with a brief description:

  • Benign: refers to non-cancerous tumors. Benign tumors do not usually invade the surrounding tissue or spread to other areas of the body.
  • Chemotherapy: the use of drugs to kill cancer cells, usually by interfering with the cell division process.
  • Hormone Therapy: a treatment that alters the body’s hormone levels to effect cancer cells.
  • Immunotherapy: a treatment that strengthens the body’s immune response to cancerous cells.
  • Integrative Medicine: the use of medical and complementary therapies to manage cancer symptoms and treatment of side effects.
  • Invasive Cancer: a cancer that has invaded surrounding tissue or spread to other areas in the body.
  • Localized Cancer: cancerous growth confined to the area where it originated.
  • Malignant: describes cancerous cell growth.
  • Mass: an abnormal lump in the body.
  • Metastasis: the spread of cancer form one part of the body to another.
  • Neoadjuvant therapy: treatment given to enhance the effectiveness of the main treatment, such as using radiation therapy to shrink a tumor before surgical removal.
  • Oncologist: a specialist in cancer treatment.
  • Oncology: the study of cancer.
  • Precancerous: cells that have the potential to become cancerous.
  • Radiation Therapy: the use of radiation to destroy cancer cells.
  • Recurrence: used to describe the return of a cancer after a period in which the disease was undetectable.
  • Remission: the disappearance of noticeable cancer signs and symptoms. Remission does not necessarily indicate the disease has been cured.
  • Screening: regularly checking whether a person has a disease.
  • Staging: a method of describing the location, spread, and progress of cancer.
  • Targeted therapy: treatment that targets genes or proteins that cause cancer growth.

Tumor: a mass formed when cells clump together.


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