Cancer: What exactly is it?

Wellness RN

Jenn CorbettMay 17, 2012 

Most of us either know someone who has cancer or have had cancer ourselves. The cancer word is thrown around so often that it has become a word we hear almost everyday. After talking with people it is clear that many do not even know what it really is. I wanted to use this weeks column to educate you on "Cancer".

Cancer is the general name for a group of more than 100 diseases in which cells in a part of the body begin to grow out of control. Although there are many kinds of cancer, they all start because abnormal cells grow out of control. The body is made up of trillions of living cells. Normal body cells grow, divide, and die in an orderly fashion.

During the early years of a person's life, normal cells divide faster to allow the person to grow. After the person becomes an adult, most cells divide only to replace worn-out or dying cells or to repair injuries. Cancer cell growth is different from normal cell growth. Instead of dying, cancer cells continue to grow and form new, abnormal cells.

Cancer cells can also grow into other tissues, something that normal cells cannot do. Growing out of control and invading other tissues are what makes a cell a cancer cell.

Cells become cancer cells because of damage to DNA. DNA is in every cell and directs all its actions. In a normal cell, when DNA gets damaged the cell either repairs the damage or the cell dies. In cancer cells, the damaged DNA is not repaired, but the cell doesn't die like it should. Instead, this cell goes on making new cells that the body does not need. These new cells will all have the same damaged DNA as the first cell does.

People can inherit damaged DNA, but most DNA damage is caused by mistakes that happen while the normal cell is reproducing or by something in our environment. Sometimes the cause of the DNA damage is something obvious, like cigarette smoking. But often no clear cause is found.

DNA damage is not the only thing these cancer cells do, many also group together to form tumors. Some cancers, like leukemia, rarely form tumors. Instead, these cancer cells involve the blood and blood-forming organs and circulate through other tissues where they grow. At some point almost all of these cancer cells if left unnoticed will begin to travel to other parts of the body. This process is called metastasis.

The more metastasis an individual has the more difficult the cancer is to treat. As with any other disease early diagnosis is key. It is also important to understand that no matter where the metastasis occurs the cancer is always named for where it originated. Breast cancer that has spread to the liver is still breast cancer.

As I mentioned above the earlier the diagnosis the better the outcome. It is important to know at what age different check-ups should be done. Speak with your doctor about when it is time for a colonoscopy, mammogram, pap smear, chest X-ray, or various different blood studies.

Your family doctor is your greatest resource in early detection.

Information for this column was gathered from

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