What is cancer?

Cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells anywhere in a body. These abnormal cells are termed cancer cells, malignant cells, or tumor cells. These cells can infiltrate normal body tissues. Many cancers and the abnormal cells that compose the cancer tissue are further identified by the name of the tissue that the abnormal cells originated from (for example, breast cancer, lung cancer, colon cancer). Cancer is not confined to humans; animals and other living organisms can get cancer. Below is a schematic that shows normal cell division and how when a cell is damaged or altered without repair to its system, the cell usually dies. Also shown is what occurs when such damaged or unrepaired cells do not die and become cancer cells and show uncontrolled division and growth -- a mass of cancer cells develop. Frequently, cancer cells can break away from this original mass of cells, travel through the blood and lymph systems, and lodge in other organs where they can again repeat the uncontrolled growth cycle. This process of cancer cells leaving an area and growing in another body area is termed metastatic spread or metastasis. For example, if breast cancer cells spread to a bone, it means that the individual has metastatic breast cancer to bone. This is not the same as "bone cancer," which would mean the cancer had started in the bone. The following table (National Cancer Institute 2016) gives the estimated numbers of new cases and deaths for each common cancer type:


What are cancer symptoms and signs?

Symptoms and signs of cancer depend on the type of cancer, where it is located, and/or where the cancer cells have spread. For example, breast cancer may present as a lump in the breast or as nipple discharge while metastatic breast cancer may present with symptoms of pain (if spread to bones), extreme fatigue (lungs), or seizures (brain). A few patients show no signs or symptoms until the cancer is far advanced.

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    • Change in bowel or bladder habits.
    • A sore throat that does not heal.
    • Unusual bleeding or discharge (for example, nipple secretions or a "sore" that will not heal that oozes material).
    • Thickening or lump in the breast, testicles, or elsewhere.
    • Indigestion (usually chronic) or difficulty swallowing.
    • Obvious change in the size, color, shape, or thickness of a wart or mole.
    • Nagging cough or hoarseness.

What are risk factors and causes of cancer?

Anything that may cause a normal body cell to develop abnormally potentially can cause cancer. Many things can cause cell abnormalities and have been linked to cancer development. Some cancer causes remain unknown while other cancers have environmental or lifestyle triggers or may develop from more than one known cause. Some may be developmentally influenced by a person's genetic makeup. Many patients develop cancer due to a combination of these factors. Although it is often difficult or impossible to determine the initiating event(s) that cause a cancer to develop in a specific person, research has provided clinicians with a number of likely causes that alone or in concert with other causes, are the likely candidates for initiating cancer. The following is a listing of major causes and is not all-inclusive as specific causes are routinely added as research advances:

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    • Chemical or toxic compound exposures: Benzene, asbestos, nickel, cadmium, vinyl chloride, benzidine, N-nitrosamines, tobacco or cigarette smoke (contains at least 66 known potential carcinogenic chemicals and toxins), asbestos, and aflatoxin.
    • Ionizing radiation: Uranium, radon, ultraviolet rays from sunlight, radiation from alpha, beta, gamma, and X-ray-emitting sources.
    • Pathogens: Human papillomavirus (HPV), EBV or Epstein-Barr virus, hepatitis viruses B and C, Kaposi's sarcoma-associated herpes virus (KSHV), Merkel cell polyomavirus, Schistosoma spp., and Helicobacter pylori; other bacteria are being researched as possible agents.
    • Genetics: A number of specific cancers have been linked to human genes and are as follows: breast, ovarian, colorectal, prostate, skin and melanoma; the specific genes and other details are beyond the scope of this general article so the reader is referred to the National Cancer Institute for more details about genetics and cancer.