FAQs About Cancer
Cancer is a broad, complex subject. Whether you have personally been affected by cancer or you simply want to gather information about the condition, it is important to get accurate answers to all of your questions. Please browse our answers to frequently asked questions below:
- What is cancer?
- What causes cancer?
- How does cancer start?
- How does cancer spread?
- How can I prevent cancer?
- Is there a link between cancer and stress?
- If my parents had cancer, will I get it?
- How is cancer detected and diagnosed?
- What is cancer staging?
- How is cancer treated?
Cancer is a condition characterized by the uncontrolled growth and division of abnormal cells in the body. An abnormal cell is one that contains damaged DNA. There are more than 100 different diseases that can be classified as types of cancer.
Cells can become damaged in a variety of ways. Some individuals may be born with abnormal DNA and be genetically predisposed to developing cancer. Other possible causes include certain lifestyle factors such as tobacco use or excessive alcohol consumption and environmental exposure to ultraviolet light or certain chemicals. Learn more by reading what the American Cancer Society has to say about Known and Probably Human Carcinogens.
When DNA becomes damaged in a normal cell, the cell repairs the damage or it dies. In a cancer cell, however, the mutated DNA continues to be replicated and the damaged cells grow out of control. While people can inherit cells with damaged DNA, most mutations occur due to external factors.
Cancer cells can enter the blood or lymph vessels and travel to other areas of the body where they may form tumors (abnormal masses of tissue) that interfere with normal functioning of tissues and organs. When cancer spreads to distant parts of the body from its original site, it has metastasized.
While cancer cannot be entirely prevented, you can take measures to reduce your risk of developing cancer. Reduce your exposure to tobacco, alcohol and ultraviolet rays. Maintain a healthy diet and exercise regularly. You can also consider vaccines that may reduce the risk of cancer such as the HPV (human papilloma virus) vaccine. Finally, have regular screenings to detect the signs of cancer as early as possible.
Multiple studies have been conducted regarding the possible relationship between stress and cancer, but no conclusive evidence has linked the two. One possible correlation may be that stress affects the immune system, which may in turn affect the body’s ability to handle damaged cells, but this has not been proven.
While some cancers have genetic risk factors, the majority of people who have cancer did not inherit it from their parents. In cases where genetics are involved, the cancer itself is not inherited – it is the abnormal gene that is passed on.
A physical exam, in addition to tests such as blood tests, X-rays and a biopsy will likely be needed for a doctor to form a cancer diagnosis. A biopsy is the removal of a section of the abnormal tissue to test if it is malignant or benign. A benign tumor is not cancerous; it can usually be removed and will not spread to other parts of the body. A malignant tumor is cancerous and has the ability to spread through the body, invading other tissues and organs.
Caner staging is a way to describe the severity of cancer when making a diagnosis and determining a treatment plan and estimating a prognosis. Staging can be complex process that takes into consideration several variables including the size of the tumor and whether the cancer has moved, but in general the stages are described as follows:
- Stage 0 – the tumor is still “in situ,” or in its original place and has not travelled
- Stage I-III – the tumor has grown larger and/or spread to nearby lymph nodes or adjacent tissues
- Stage IV – the tumor has spread to distant areas of the body
The three main types of cancer treatment are: surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. Depending on the patient’s particular cancer, the treatments may be prescribed in conjunction with one another. Surgery to remove the tumor may be the first course of treatment, or surgery may follow chemotherapy and radiation therapy, which are aimed at shrinking and/or killing cancer cells.