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Published on July 11, 2023Published on October 27th, 2023
Patient undergoing radiation therapy

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What is cancer?

Cancer is a condition triggered by cells that undergo excessive and abnormal division. It originates when the DNA within a cell becomes damaged or mutated. Under normal circumstances, the body eliminates such cells before they pose a threat. However, certain DNA mutations enable cells to evade the body’s safety mechanisms, leading to uncontrolled growth and division, ultimately resulting in the development of cancer.

As the number of these cells multiplies, they can form a mass known as a tumor. This tumor has the potential to invade nearby tissues, distinguishing it as cancerous (malignant) rather than noncancerous (benign). Additionally, cancer cells may detach from the tumor and travel to different parts of the body, a process referred to as metastasis. Consequently, these migrating cancer cells can settle in other organs and initiate the formation of new tumors, known as metastases.

What causes cancer?

Cancer doesn’t have a single cause. While some individuals may have a genetic predisposition to certain types of cancer due to inherited genes from their parents, genetics alone do not account for the whole picture. Other factors related to one’s lifestyle and environment also play a significant role and can outweigh genetic risks in many cases.

Various cancer risks arise throughout a person’s lifetime, including:

  • Advancing age
  • Exposure to radiation
  • Ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun
  • Tobacco smoking
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Increased body weight or excess body fat
  • Viral infections, such as human papillomavirus (HPV) or hepatitis C.

What are the common types of cancer?

In the United States, the most prevalent types of cancer include breast cancer, prostate cancer, lung cancer, colon and rectal cancer, and melanoma. Among these, lung cancer holds the highest fatality rate, contributing to 23% of cancer-related deaths in the country. Additionally, the following types of cancer are known to be highly lethal:

  • Colon and rectal cancer (accounting for 9% of cancer-related deaths)
  • Pancreatic cancer (8%)
  • Female breast cancer (7%)
  • Prostate cancer (5%)
  • Liver and bile duct cancer (5%)

How is cancer diagnosed?

Each person’s journey with cancer is unique and varies from individual to individual.
Certain cancers can be detected through screening tests designed to identify early signs or precancerous conditions before they develop into more significant problems.

Examples of such tests include mammograms for breast cancer, colonoscopies for colon cancer, pap smears for cervical cancer, and prostate-specific antigen (PSA) tests for prostate cancer.

Sometimes, cancer is incidentally discovered during testing for other medical conditions, such as the detection of lung cancer on a chest X-ray or signs of leukemia in blood counts. Alternatively, new symptoms related to cancer, such as pain from a growing tumor, unexplained weight loss, or jaundice, may prompt the diagnosis.

Upon receiving a potential cancer diagnosis, further rounds of testing are typically conducted to confirm the presence of cancer, determine its specific type, and assess the extent of its spread. This often involves additional blood tests, more detailed imaging scans such as CT scans or MRIs to examine the tumor closely, and a biopsy of the tumor.

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What treatment methods can be used for cancer?

Cancer treatment is a vast and rapidly evolving field. Oncologists collaborate closely with patients to create personalized treatment plans based on factors such as the type of cancer, concurrent medical conditions, and individual preferences. As a result, treatment approaches can vary significantly from person to person.

Typically, individuals undergo a combination of two or more of the following treatment modalities:

  1. Radiation: High-energy beams are utilized to destroy cancer cells. The radiation is precisely targeted at the tumor to minimize harm to surrounding healthy tissues.
  2. Surgery: In certain cases, surgery is an option for tumor removal. It may be performed after radiation or chemotherapy to shrink the tumor.
  3. Chemotherapy: Medications are employed to kill rapidly dividing cells, including cancer cells. Unlike radiation or surgery, chemotherapy is systemic, affecting cancer cells throughout the body.
  4. Hormone and targeted therapy: These medications obstruct specific receptors on cancer cells that contribute to their growth, essentially depriving the cancer cells of necessary nutrients. For instance, certain breast cancers rely on estrogen, and medications can block estrogen receptors.
  5. Immunotherapy: This represents a newer approach to cancer treatment. These medications help activate and enhance the body’s immune system, enabling it to recognize and eliminate cancer cells effectively. Immunotherapy essentially mobilizes the body’s own anticancer defenses.

It’s important to note that treatment plans are tailored to individual needs, and the combination of treatments chosen can vary based on specific circumstances and the characteristics of the cancer.


What is cancer?

Cancer is a disease caused by cells that divide abnormally and uncontrollably. These cells can form a mass called a tumor, which may be cancerous (malignant) or noncancerous (benign). Malignant tumors can invade surrounding tissues and spread to other parts of the body, leading to the formation of secondary tumors, known as metastases.

What causes cancer?

Cancer can be triggered by a variety of factors, including genetics, advancing age, exposure to radiation, ultraviolet rays, tobacco smoking, alcohol consumption, excess body weight, and certain viral infections like HPV and hepatitis C.

Are there different types of cancer?

Yes, there are many types of cancer. The most common ones in the U.S. include breast, prostate, lung, colon and rectal, and melanoma. Among these, lung cancer is the most lethal.

How is cancer diagnosed?

Cancer can be detected through screening tests, like mammograms or colonoscopies, specifically designed for early detection. Sometimes, cancer is discovered incidentally during other medical examinations or due to the onset of symptoms. If cancer is suspected, further tests such as detailed imaging scans or biopsies are conducted to confirm the diagnosis.

How is cancer treated?

Treatment approaches can vary based on the cancer type, its stage, and individual preferences. Common treatments include radiation, surgery, chemotherapy, hormone and targeted therapy, and immunotherapy. Often, a combination of two or more methods is used.

What's the difference between a benign and malignant tumor?

A benign tumor does not invade nearby tissues or spread to other parts of the body, while a malignant tumor can invade surrounding areas and form secondary tumors in distant organs, a process known as metastasis.

Can cancer be hereditary?

Yes, certain types of cancer have a genetic predisposition. However, not all cases are due to genetics. Environmental and lifestyle factors can also play a significant role in cancer development.

What are the risks associated with radiation exposure?

Exposure to high doses of radiation can increase the risk of developing cancer. It’s essential to minimize unnecessary exposure and ensure that medical tests involving radiation are justified and optimized for safety.

Can lifestyle choices influence cancer risk?

Absolutely. Lifestyle choices like smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, and maintaining excess body weight can elevate the risk of developing various cancers.

What is metastasis?

Metastasis refers to the process where cancer cells detach from the primary tumor, travel through the bloodstream or lymphatic system, and form new tumors in distant organs.

How effective is immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy, a relatively new treatment approach, harnesses the body’s immune system to recognize and fight cancer cells. Its effectiveness can vary based on the type of cancer and individual factors.

Are there any side effects associated with cancer treatments?

Yes, cancer treatments can cause side effects. These vary depending on the treatment type and individual factors. It’s crucial to discuss potential side effects with the healthcare provider to make informed decisions and manage them effectively.

Can cancer be prevented?

While not all cancers are preventable, individuals can take measures to reduce their risk by making healthier lifestyle choices, undergoing regular screenings, and staying informed about potential risk factors.

Is there a cure for cancer?

The term “cure” can be subjective. Many cancers can be effectively treated and controlled, and some people may live cancer-free for the rest of their lives. However, some cancers might recur or become chronic. The goal is always to achieve the best possible quality of life and manage the disease effectively.

How can one support someone diagnosed with cancer?

Offering emotional support, helping with daily tasks, accompanying them to appointments, and providing a listening ear can all make a significant difference. Joining a support group or seeking counseling can also be beneficial for both the patient and their loved ones.