What Is Cancer?
Cancer is an entire class of diseases involving uncontrolled cellular growth.
In cancer, cells display this enormous amount of growth by dividing well beyond normal amounts. This “invasion” of the body destroys or damages nearby tissue. In the worst cases, cancer involves cell growth in “metastasis”, or a spreading of these fast-growing cells throughout the body, usually via lymph nodes or through the blood.
Don’t confuse cancer with “tumors” in general–most tumors are benign, meaning they don’t destroy other tissue and don’t spread throughout the body. Benign tumors do not invade or harm the body and are usually treatable with simple surgery.
Cancer is an entire family of diseases–there are more than 100 unique types of cancer that affect every part of the human body. We differentiate once cancer from another by naming them after the organ or cell type that they have invaded, so cancer in the breast tissue becomes “breast cancer.”
Cancer can also be divided up into broad categories rather than by organ system. The main categories of cancer are:
Carcinoma – Any cancer that starts in the skin or in the tissues that line or cover your internal organs.
Sarcoma – Any cancer that starts in bone, cartilage, fat, muscle, blood vessels, or other connective or supportive body tissues.
Leukemia – Any cancer that gets its start in the blood-forming tissue of the bone marrow. Leukemia causes large numbers of abnormal blood cells to enter the blood.
Lymphoma and myeloma – These cancers begin in the cells of the immune system and are usually the fastest to metastasize.
Central nervous system cancers – These cancers begin in the tissues of the brain and spinal cord.
Where Does Cancer Come From?
All cancers begin in your body’s cells, the basic building block of human life. Normally, our cells follow a very predictable life span, dividing normally and eventually dying to be replaced by new cells.
Your body is made up of dozens of different types of cells. The idea behind cell division and growth is to maintain healthy new cells to replace the ones that die naturally. This is how your body regenerates itself–new cells are born to replace the ones that die in order to keep you healthy.
When your cell’s life span changes or is interrupted, we sometimes call this cancer. Just like you, your cells have DNA and genetic material embedded in them. When this genetic material is damaged or mutates, these changes affect the normal development and growth of cells, including the division process. In cancer, your cells do not die when they should and new cells begin to form even though your body does not need them. These extra cells usually form a large mass of tissue known as a tumor.
How Many People Get Cancer Every Year? – Cancer Statistics
According to the American Cancer Society, incidences of cancer are on the rise. In 2010 alone, there have been over 1.5 million new cases of cancer–that high number doesn’t include skin cancer figures. There have been over a half million cancer deaths in 2010 alone. The topic of cancer is deadly serious.
The most common types of cancer vary from country to country. In America, the most commonly diagnosed cancers are:
- Bladder Cancer
- Lung Cancer
- Breast Cancer
- Colon and Rectal Cancer
- Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma
- Endometrial Cancer
- Pancreatic Cancer
- Kidney (Renal Cell) Cancer
- Prostate Cancer
- Thyroid Cancer
What Causes Cancer?
The question of what exactly causes cancer is very controversial. In general, we know that certain things lead to the development of cancer. Here’s a quick breakdown.
Cancer Risk Factors
Growing older — Simply aging increases your cancer risk factor. As your body ages, your cells go through more mutations and life cycles, meaning that cancer has more opportunities to sneak in.
Tobacco use — Like it or not, those cigarettes you’ve been smoking (don’t forget smokeless tobacco and secondhand smoke) are probably going to give you cancer. Smoking increases your risk for cancer tenfold.
Sunlight — The most common cancers in America are caused by overexposure to the sun.
Ionizing radiation — Unless you live inside of a microwave or have been a victim of a nuclear attack, you shouldn’t worry about the cancer-causing potential of ionizing radiation.
Certain chemicals — Commonly used industrial chemicals like asbestos, benzene, benzidine, cadmium, nickel, or vinyl chloride have been shown to contribute to cancers. People in industrial jobs should pay close attention to their exposure to various industrial chemicals.
Family history of cancer — Besides aging, the single greatest risk factor for developing cancer is a family history of cancer.
Alcohol — Everything good causes cancer, right? On a serious note, people who have more than two drinks a day for many years are at a great risk for developing cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus, larynx, liver, and breast.
There are many more risk factors for cancer, but these are the most dangerous. If you’re worried about your own exposure to any of these factors, see your doctor.
Cancer isn’t the death sentence that it was even thirty years ago. New advances in diagnosis and treatment mean that many cancer patients have an expectation of a normal lifespan, and most have treatment options that don’t interrupt their life any more than an outpatient surgery. Avoid cancer by reducing your exposure to cancer-causing substances or situations.
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