When the body is bogged down by an increase in the number of abnormal cells that divide without any control simultaneously invading the tissues of different organs, you are supposed to be suffering from cancer. These cells divide rapidly and enter various parts of your body via lymph systems and blood. On an average nine million cases of cancer are diagnosed annually, all over the globe out of which 4.5 million patients succumb to cancer.
As in India, more than seven lakhs people are diagnosed with cancer every year out of which 3.5 lakhs die due to this disease. Sadly, almost 33 percent of cancer is caused due to bad habits such as the use of tobacco.
How Does Cancer Occur?
Cells fom the basic unit of life. The cancer attacks this basis of human life, which is why it is very difficult to eliminate cancerous cells from the body. The normal cells turn into cancerous cells and the cells that were earlier supporting your body system now become destructive and turn against the normal working of your body. Here is a short description how normal cells turn into cancer cells:
- A human body constitutes of different types of cells.
- These cells grow as well as divide in a limited way and produce cells only in that amount which is required for the healthy growth of the body.
- Once the cells become old, they die and are immediately replaced by the new cells. This process is continuous.
- When this process of cell division and growing is disrupted, the body system suffers a jolt.
- This usually occurs when the DNA or the genetic material of the cell is changed or damaged.
- When this happens, the normal growth and division of the cells is affected and the cells keep on producing mutations.
- Due to this, the old cells do not die and the new cells are produced continuously leading to the formation of a tissue mass known as tumor.
Types of Tumors
Tumors are formed in this way. However, not all the tumors are cancerous. These are of two types:
- Benign tumors are non-cancerous and usually do not come back after they have been removed. This type of tumor does not spread in the other body parts and cause disruption.
- Malignant tumors are the cancerous tumors that penetrate the nearby tissues and rapidly spread to the other body parts. The process of spreading of cancer from one body part to the other is known as metastasis.
- Some types of cancers do not constitute of tumors such as blood cancer or leukemia that forms in the bone marrow.
Types of Cancer
A malignant tumor is the cause of cancer. But cancer cannot be considered as just one disease as it causes problems in different body parts. At present 100 different types of cancer have been found out. These cancers are named according to the organ from which the cancer starts. For example, a cancer that begins in the intestine is known as intestinal cancer and so on.
These different types of cancer are broadly categorized in groups as follows:
1. Sarcoma Cancer:
This type of cancer starts in fat, cartilage, bone, connective or supportive tissue or blood vessels
2. Carcinoma Cancer:
This type of cancer begins inside the tissues or the skin. Subtypes of carcinoma include basal cell carcinoma, adeno-carcinoma, transitional cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma.
3. Lymphoma and Myeloma:
This type of cancer starts within the immune system cells.
Blood cancer or leukemia starts inside the tissues that form blood such as bone marrow leading to the formation of abnormal blood cells.
5. Cancer of Central Nervous System:
This type of cancer starts within the spinal cord or brain tissues.
Different Stages of Cancer
Stage of cancer refers to the particular stage at which the cancer was first detected or diagnosed. It is very important that the caregiver is sure about the exact stage of cancer because it can play a critical role in the treatment of cancer.
Apart from the regular one, two or three stage, cancer is also detected in 0 or situ stage. Here is a step by step description on different stages of Cancer.
0 or Situ Stage
- Sometimes a normal cell becomes cancerous and divides along with the other similar cells.
- These cells together form a tumor right within the tissue of a particular organ.
- At this stage, there is very little or altogether no threat to the life.
- This is known as situ cancer as it is in the stage where it began.
- More often, such cancers never go beyond this stage.
Stage 1 or Localized Cancer
- During the first stage, the cells of cancer become capable of gaining an entry inside the basement membrane-a fibrous, thin boundary surrounding and protecting the tissue in which the cancer started.
- After going beyond the basement membrane, these cells start invading the neighboring tissues.
- This indicates that the cancer is spreading and now can be dangerous to life.
- Since the cancer during this stage is still restricted to a single tissue of a particular organ, it is known as localized stage of cancer.
2 and 3 Stages of Cancer
- Once the cancer cells gain the capacity to invade the base membrane, the daughter cancer cells now start invading the lymph vessel that carries the very clear lymph fluid, exuding into the tissues via blood capillaries, and then going back to the blood stream.
- While the lymph fluid is going back to the blood stream, occasionally the cancerous cells are attached to the lymph node that is the powerhouse of your body’s immune system.
- If your immune system is good, the lymph node will respond against it and eliminate the cancer cells.
- However, in case, the lymph node fails to eliminate the cancerous cells, then, a tumor like lump is formed within the lymph node.
- Thus, although the cancer has advanced from its Situ or stage 1 stage, the penetration is limited to a particular region from where it began and has not reached to another body parts.This is known as regional spread.
Stage 4-Distant Spread
- At this stage the cancerous cells spread further from the lymph node and moves to the lymph nodes of different organs through the lymph vessels or via the blood stream.
- Sometimes the cancerous cells from the original place invade the capillaries and enter into the blood stream directly.
- Once the cancer cells are inside the blood stream they can be carried to any part of the body and start forming new colonies thus spreading all over the body.This stage is the distant spread.
Symptoms and Signs of Cancer
As discussed earlier, cancer is not just one disease but a combination of several diseases and hence can display various symptoms and signs that are sometimes very normal or very serious. Usually, the indications depend upon the organ where the cancer has developed initially.
If it is in the first stage, the symptoms will be displayed in that particular organ. However, if the spread is distant then several symptoms will be displayed suggesting problems in different body parts. The cancerous tumor puts pressure on the blood vessels, nerves and the organs near to it leading to signs and symptoms.
However, sometimes the cancer occurs in a place that does not show any indications of its growth and it is only diagnosed usually at the last stages. Pancreatic cancer, cancer of the bile duct and so on does not cause any symptoms until the tumor grows large enough and starts pressing the other nearby organs.
Here are some of the general symptoms and signs of cancer:
A cancer patient starts losing weight without any reason as the cancer progresses. This unexplained weight loss, especially of 10 pounds or even more is considered the first indication of cancer. Such symptoms are mostly associated with lung, stomach, pancreas and esophagus cancer.
Fever is the most common indication of cancer and usually a patient starts having fever when the cancer has progressed beyond its point of origin. Occurrence of fever is an indication that the body’s immune system is trying hard to resist cancerous cells. However, the patients suffering from lymphoma or leukemia may get fever right from the start of the disease.
In certain types of cancer such as testicular and bone cancers, pain starts at a very early stage. This pain increases as the cancer grows and hence is considered an important symptom that helps in early diagnosis of the disease. For example, a patient suffering from a brain tumor may suffer from severe headache that is almost incurable. Similarly, pain in the back is an indication of ovary, rectum or colon cancer.
Extreme tiredness that does not go away even after resting for long hours indicates the onset or progress of cancer. This can be an early sign of leukemia or some other type of cancer such as stomach or colon cancer in which blood loss occurs.
Changes in the Skin
There are visible changes in the color and texture of the skin when a patient suffers from skin cancer. These
- Hyperpigmentation or darker skin
- Jaundice or yellowish skin as well as eyes
- Erythema or reddened skin
- Prunitis or itching
- Extreme hair growth
Note: Just because a patient is suffering from any of the above symptoms or signs does not mean that he is suffering from cancer, as these symptoms are quite common in other general diseases.
Is Cancer Curable?
The curability of cancer depends upon the type of cancer a patient is suffering from. Some types of cancer can be cured when they are diagnosed at a very early stage. On the other hand, there are certain cancers that can be cured at any stage whenever they are diagnosed. For example, blood cancers such as acute leukemia or lymphoma can be cured with the chemotherapy.
Whereas, other types of common cancers such as pancreatic, colon, lung, prostate, breast cancer are only curable when caught in the early stage-first or the second stage at the most.
Since in the first two stages the cancerous cells have not moved to any other body parts, they can be easily removed from the body through surgery. However, if such type of cancer has spread beyond third or fourth stage it is difficult to cure as it has moved beyond its primary point of origin.
Some of the incurable cancers include certain types of lung cancer, melanoma or skin cancer and more.
Tests to Detect Cancerous cells
There are two main types of tests used to detect cancer. These include:
- Laboratory Tests
- Imaging Tests
Usually doctors recommend imaging tests initially for detecting presence of cancer. Some such tests include:
Limitations of Mammograms:
This screening test has certain limitations such as overdiagnosis, false-positive results, false-negative results, over treatment and exposure to radiation.
- CT Scan or computed tomography makes use of dedicated x-ray equipment for creating a series of scans or pictures in detail of different parts of the body.
- This test is also known as computerized axial tomography or CAT scanning.
- This test is recommended to detect abnormal growth of tumor or lumps in the various parts of the body and to identify the stages and level of growth.
- The result of this test is very helpful in guiding the procedure of biopsy or for recommending a particular treatment to the patient.
- The test is also conducted to monitor whether the cancer in any way responding to the treatment.
Risk Associated with CT Scan: CT scan exposes your body to harmful sources such as ionizing radiation that can lead to cancer.
- In a laboratory test, a sample of urine, blood, tissue or bodily fluid is examined to get a detailed report on the health of a person.
- In case of cancer apart from the other laboratory tests, biopsy is considered the most important as it includes observing the tissue of the tumor under microscope.
PSA Test (Prostate-Specific Antigen)
- During this test, the level of the blood of the prostate specific antigen is measured. The higher the level of PSA, more are the chances of his having a prostate cancer.
- But the elevated level of PSA in the blood do not always indicate that the person is having cancer as other conditions can also contribute in the rise of the PSA. Contrary to that, even if a patient’s PSA level do not show an increase in the level of PSA in the blood, it does not mean that he is not suffering from prostate cancer.
- This test is hence used especially to detect presence of prostate cancer in men and also to monitor the progress and response of the cancer to the treatment.
Note: Some health experts do not recommend the use of this test as they are of the opinion that the risks are far more than the advantages.
HPV and Pap Testing
- These two tests are considered important for screening the cervical cancer and are regularly recommended as a part of normal health care routine of women.
- These tests detect the presence of abnormalities or cancer cells that can cause cervical cancer in the near future.
- According to current health guidelines, women in between the ages of 30 to 65 years should undergo HPV and Pap testing after every five years.
- Women with specific health condition or symptoms or above the age of 65 years should undergo this test after every two to three years.
Note: Women who had HPV vaccination should conduct the cervical screening more regularly.
Latest Cancer Treatments
Chances of complete cure are much better if the disease is detected in its early stages. Here are some of the techniques used to treat different stages of cancer.
This is the latest treatment that manipulates the regular functioning of the body. During this treatment, the body’s immune system is stimulated and given a boost by giving topical medications and injections to fight the cancerous cells.
In hormone therapy, the hormones in the body are manipulated to treat the cancerous cells. The process includes administering drugs and hormones. Doctors sometimes also recommend complete removal of hormone glands to destroy the cancer cells or to prevent the growth of these cells.
This is one of the most effective treatments used for treating cancer. Through chemotherapy, your body is given external help to fight the cancerous cells that have spread in all the parts of the body and where no other treatment can be effective. Dozens of different drugs are also given for oral consumption to the patient during this treatment to support the process of elimination of cancerous cells.
During radiation therapy, the affected part of the body is made to face the attack of radiation energy. The attack is mainly targeted at eliminating the existing cancerous cells and inhibiting their reproduction process. This therapy is also recommended to shrink the size of the tumor so that it can be removed easily through surgery. In case the tumor is small, the cancerous cells can be eliminated even without surgery.
Note: In both chemotherapy and radiation therapy, the normal cells too are affected during the treatment and lead to certain unpleasant side effects such as dryness, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, peeling of the skin and more.
It is the most popularly used cure for removing cancerous cells from the body. More than 60 percent of the cancer patients undergo surgery. Surgery is conducted when the cancerous growth is found in its early stages so that the spread of the tumor is restricted. Along with surgery, usually chemotherapy and /or radiation therapy is also recommended.
How to Prevent Cancer
If you make small changes in your lifestyle, you can prevent the onset of cancer to some extent. Although, no one can guarantee complete prevention, you can certainly minimize the chances of getting afflicted by this disease.
Eat Balanced Diet and Cancer Preventing Foods
- Making small changes in your diet can reduce your chances of getting cancer.
- Ensuring regular intake of vegetables, fruits, fibers and whole grains in your daily diet can keep you away from this dangerous disease.
- Doctors advise avoiding fatty foods, fatty dairy products as obesity can also lead to cancer.
- According to a study conducted by the American Institute for Cancer Research and World Cancer Research Fund, eating foods that come mostly from plants reduces your risk of getting cancer.
- Some such foods that have been found to reduce the risk of cancer include garlic, berries and broccoli.
- Foods that are low in fats and calories and are enriched with antioxidants and phytochemicals provide cancer-fighting immunity to your body.
- Including antioxidants such as beta-carotene, vitamin C, lycopene is a guaranteed way of boosting the immunity system of your body.
Obesity also has some link with cancer. Hence staying active and indulging in regular exercise for 30 minutes to maintain normal weight helps prevent cancer in the end.
The reports of the Mayo Clinic suggest that regular physical activity reduces your chances of getting both colon and breast cancer.
Maintaining ideal weight can also reduce the risk of lung, prostate and kidney cancer.
Note: A disciplined and healthy lifestyle ensures that you are saved from not only cancer but also other serious diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke and more.
- Unsafe practices such as drug or alcohol abuse, sharing the needles of others and practicing unsafe sex can serve as an invitation to cancer and several other diseases.
- Such practices break down your immune system making you vulnerable to cancer cells and other bacteria and viruses.
Say ‘no’ to Smoking
- Avoiding tobacco is the first step you should take to lower the cancer risk.
- The researchers from Mayo Clinic have linked several types of cancer such as cervical, bladder, kidney and lung cancer with smoking.
- Secondhand smoke or passive smoking too can lead to lung cancer.
Using Sun Protection
- Skin cancer is caused due to overexposure to ultraviolet sunrays.
- Using sun protection of minimum SPF 15 daily and covering your exposed body with a scarf or protecting it using umbrella or a hat with wide brim can help reduce the chances of skin cancer.
- If you have to be under the sun for long time, it is advisable to wear clothing with UPF rating.
- Avoid using tanning beds or sunlamps.
Use Only Trustable Sources
Several brands in the market claim to reduce the risk of cancer and other serious diseases through their supplements.
You should avoid falling prey to such claims and instead use only those supplements and drugs as prescribed by your caregiver.
Early Detection through Screening
- Detection of cancer at an early stage through screening can save your life.
- Your doctor can recommend you several tests for testing the presence of cancer in different parts of the body such as prostate, cervix, colon, breast, colon and skin cancer.
- Early detection restricts the growth of the cancer to other body parts and the chances of survival are maximized.
- Being immunized against other serious disease such as HPV and hepatitis B can lower the risk of getting cervical and liver cancer respectively.
Preventing Cancer Growth through Cancer Vaccines
Specific types of vaccines for cancer are developed for treating particular type of cancer. So, for different types of cancer, different vaccines are administered. Researchers are underway for preparing one antidote or vaccine for all types of cancer. This vaccine is known as universal cancer vaccine and it is expected to be available in coming days.
The vaccine works by stimulating the immunity of a patient and producing particular type of cells that destroy cancer cells and prevent recurrence and their growth. The vaccine contains special antigens or tumors. Unlike other diseases, vaccine for cancer is only given to a patient after the disease has been detected and not for preventing the onset of this disease in the patient. At present five types of vaccines are available that can help prevent the progress of cancer. These are:
• DNA Vaccines
• Antigen vaccines
• Tumor cell vaccines
• Dendritic cell vaccines
• Anti-idiotype vaccines