Our body is constantly subject to a variety of different insults that can place a great deal of stress on the body. This results in natural death of cells and replacement with new, healthy cells. But sometimes, there are certain cells that end up growing in a disorganized and uncontrollable manner. This abnormal growth of cells is called cancer. There are numerous types of cancer that can affect literally every part of the body. In this article, we shall take a brief look at cancer, the different types and what you need to know about this condition.
What is cancer?
Cancer is the uncontrollable and abnormal growth of cells within the body. It can affect various systems, though the common cancers include those of the breast, prostate, lungs, colon and skin.
Cancer is a fairly common condition. Much research is being conducted in the field to ensure that treatments can be developed that can potentially cure this condition. Unfortunately, many cancers are not yet curable and can in fact only be controlled. The long term problem with cancer is that it can lead to slow deterioration of the individual ultimately resulting in their death. Of course this may not be the case with all cancers.
Spread of cancer
A problem of particular concern with cancer is that it has the potential to spread. In the early stages, cancer may remain localized to the one structure, but if left untreated can gradually spread to nearby lymph nodes and even distant organs. The more the spread, the more difficult it is to treat.
Spread of cancer can occur through different routes. The most common type is through local spread to nearby structures due to growth of cells. Cancer can spread through blood and the lymphatic system as well. For example, cancer from the prostate gland in men can spread to the bones.
Characteristic features of all cancers
It must be borne in mind that not every lump found incidentally in the body is cancer. Lumps can be completely benign and not cause any problems whatsoever. However, if cancerous, there are certain features that they will most certainly demonstrate.
One feature of cancer is the constant growth of cell. Cells within the cancer never stop growing and multiplying. Despite giving certain drugs, the growth cannot be suppressed. In addition, they have an abnormally long life and are almost resistant to natural cell death. The cells have the potential to spread through the blood to distant organs as has been previously described.
Symptoms and signs
In the early stages, patients with cancer may not demonstrate any symptoms at all. They continue to lead healthy lives, but as the cancer progresses patients start to notice a reduction in body weight and overall fitness. They are tired and exhausted most of the time. In cases such as breast cancer, patients may notice a large, irregular lump in the breast. In patients with lung cancer, difficulty breathing and weight loss may be the primary symptoms. Colon cancer presents as weight loss and bleeding from the rectum. In each case, the symptoms are different and patients need to be aware of any changes that their body undergoes so that they can report it to their doctor and have it checked out straight away.
When it comes to the different signs that are elicited on clinical examination, many a time doctors may find that the patient has absolutely no clinical signs to suggest the presence of cancer. Investigations may be needed to confirm the diagnosis if there is a suspicion of it.
Cancer can be investigated in multiple ways, and depends on the clinical diagnosis. For example, breast cancer is often diagnosed through mammography and subsequent biopsy. Colon cancer is diagnosed through a colonoscopy and biopsy. Brain cancer is diagnosed through an MRI scan. Investigations can also help decide on treatments for the patient.
Types of cancer treatment
There are a number of different treatments that can be given for patients with cancer, and as always would depend on the type of cancer. Broadly classified, cancers are treated through radiation (radiotherapy), tablets (chemotherapy) or surgery.
Radiation therapy is a specialized form of treatment where the cancer is exposed to a controlled amount of radiation. The radiation kills the cancer cells and helps reduce the size of the cancer. However, it must be borne in mind that not all cancers can respond to radiation therapy, and that the decision must be made by trained healthcare professionals. More often than not, patients are offered radiation therapy after they have undergone surgical treatment or chemotherapy.
Chemotherapy is the administration of drugs to patients with cancer. These drugs are directed against the cancer cells, acting particularly on the genetic material within the cells. Unfortunately, chemotherapy drugs cannot differentiate between cancer cells and normal cells, and therefore patients may feel extremely unwell after treatment. Hair loss and other side effects are common and must be expected. Often, treatment is accompanied with radiotherapy.
Surgery for cancer is offered from some types of cancer. The choice of surgery depends on the type of cancer and how far it has spread. Locally spread cancers are usually easily removed, while large cancers with a great degree of spread do not benefit from surgery. The decision for surgery is a tough one and must be made by experts in collaboration with patients. Also, surgery may not necessarily be a cure.
The prognosis of cancer is variable, and depends on the spread. Distantly spread cancers have a poorer prognosis when compared to the locally spread ones.
Cancer is an abnormal growth of cells that can have a detrimental effect on a patient’s health. It is treated through different modalities, but does not necessarily have a cure. Patients who suspect they may have cancer must have their tests and treatment offered sooner rather than later.