What is Cancer?
Cancer is not just one disease, but many diseases that all have in common one thing: the abnormal growth of cells. Cancerous cells can damage or destroy nearby tissues and potentially spread to other parts of your body.
There are more than 100 types of cancer; most are named for the part of your body it started in, such as breast cancer or colon cancer.
Not all abnormal growths of cells, called a tumor, are cancerous. Benign tumors are not cancerous and do not spread to other parts of your body. Malignant tumors are cancerous and have the potential to invade other parts of your body (a process called metastasis) by traveling through your bloodstream or lymph system. Some cancers do not have tumors, such as leukemia which is a cancer of your bone marrow and blood.
How will I feel with cancer?
Depending on which type of cancer you have, the symptoms can be quite varied. Early cancer does not usually cause any pain. You may experience one or more of the following symptoms:
- New lump under the skin
- Weight loss or weight gain
- Skin problems (sores that won’t heal, changes to a mole, redness)
- Change to bowel or bladder habits
- Nagging cough or hoarseness
- Difficulty swallowing
- Muscle or joint pain
- Unusual bleeding or discharge
How did I get cancer?
Cancer is caused by harmful changes in your genes that control normal cell growth and death. A change to a gene is called a mutation. Gene mutations can be inherited from one or both of your parents, which does not mean that you will get cancer for sure, but it does increase your risk of certain types of cancers. If you are concerned about your family’s pattern of disease, for example if you parents or siblings have had cancer, especially the same type of cancer, if they had it at an early age, or you’ve had a certain type of cancer in the past, you may want to consider having a genetic test done. The results of the test are not always clear, so it’s best to speak with a genetic counselor before proceeding.
Gene mutations can also be caused by something in your lifestyle or environment, such as tobacco use, diet, ultraviolet light, or harmful chemicals. Certain viral infections, such as human papillomavirus (HPV), hepatitis B and C, and HIV also increase the risk of developing certain types of cancers.
Cancer is more likely as you get older and if you use tobacco, drink alcohol (more than two drinks a day for men and more than one drink a day for women), spend excessive time in the sun, or work with hazardous chemicals.
How will I know I have cancer?
Early detection is very important since the sooner your cancer is found and treatment begins, the better your chances for a successful treatment outcome. In order to diagnose your cancer and determine which type of cancer you have, your doctor may do a physical exam, blood tests, imaging tests (such as CT, bone scan, MRI, or ultrasound), and/or take a small sample of tissue (called a biopsy).
If your doctor determines that you have cancer, the next step will be to find out the stage of your cancer. Cancer stages are usually referred to by Roman numerals: I through IV, with the higher numeral being a more advanced case.
Could I have something else?
Since cancer can occur in almost any part of the body and cause a vast number of different symptoms, there are many other diseases that your doctor will rule out before determining that you have cancer. A biopsy will generally provide a definite answer that you have cancer.
Can I prevent cancer?
There is no guaranteed way to prevent cancer, but there are many ways to reduce your risk of cancer.
- Do not smoke or use tobacco products and avoid second-hand smoke
- Avoid excessive exposure to the sun and do not get sunburned
- Eat a well-balanced diet that is lower in fat and rich in fruits and vegetables
- Limit alcohol intake (two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women)
- Exercise regularly
- Maintain a healthy body weight
- Avoid harmful chemicals
Early detection of cancer increases the chances that you will be successfully treated. Cancer screening tests that you can get include colonoscopy, Pap smear, mammogram, and/or PSA.
It is also helpful to know your family history of cancer, since some types of cancer can be hereditary such as breast, ovarian, and colon. Talk to your doctor about immunizations, such as hepatitis B and HPV, to see if these could reduce your risk of future cancer.
What problems can cancer cause?
Cancer, as well as the treatment of your cancer, can cause some additional problems, such as pain, fatigue, breathing difficulties, nausea, diarrhea, constipation, and/or immune system problems. If you have cancer that has been treated you could have it come back again, which is called a recurrence. Cancer can also spread to another part of your body.
What are my treatment options?
There are many potential treatments available. Your doctor will choose a treatment plan of one method or a combination of them, depending on the type and location of your cancer and its stage. The goal in treating cancer is to kill or remove your cancer-causing cells. There are several ways to do this:
- Radiation therapy
- Hormone therapy
- Stem cell transplant
- Biological therapy (medications that use your immune system to fight your cancer)
What side effects can I expect?
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How did I get cancer?
Unfortunately, because cancer treatments kill cancerous cells in your body, they can also damage healthy cells and tissues. This can cause many side effects, such as nausea or fatigue. Your doctor will have some additional therapies that can lessen or manage your side effects.
What will happen in the future?
Approximately 64 percent of people diagnosed with cancer will still be alive after five years. However, this varies greatly depending on what type of cancer you have.
Cancer is the second-leading cause of death in the United States. Survival rates continue to get better for many different types of cancer due to improvements in cancer screening, detection, and cancer treatments.
What lifestyle changes should I make?
During and after your cancer treatment, you should follow a healthy diet and lifestyle to help your body heal and stay healthy. Follow the guidelines for preventing cancer (such as not smoking or getting sunburned).
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Where can I get more information?
National Cancer Institute