Cancer is the uncontrolled clonal multiplication of damaged, malfunctioning cells.
The name for the type of cancer a person has is determined by where the cancer originated. For example, if a person first has cancer in a breast, and this cancer then spreads to the liver, it is considered breast cancer and not liver cancer. Whereas if the cancer had started in the liver, it would be categorized as liver cancer.
Frequently cancer does indeed spread, as cancer cells travel through the blood and lymph systems and establish themselves elsewhere in the body. When cancer spreads beyond where it first developed, it is said to have metastasized. So for instance, colon cancer that spreads to the bones, or anywhere else in the body outside the colon, is metastatic colon cancer.
There are over 200 types of cancer. Broadly speaking, they fall into five categories. (Remember, the categorization is based on where the cancer started, not where it is currently. Each of these types of cancers can be found in other areas of the body.)
- Carcinoma: Cancer of the skin or of internal tissues that line or cover bodily organs.
- Central nervous system cancer: Cancer of the brain or spinal cord.
- Leukemia: Cancer of the bone marrow or other blood-forming tissue.
- Lymphoma and myeloma: Cancer of the cells of the immune system.
- Sarcoma: Cancer of the bones, blood vessels, cartilage, fat, muscles, or other supportive tissue.
In the United States, the most common cancer is skin cancer, followed by lung cancer, prostate cancer, and breast cancer, all of which are in the carcinoma category. In fact, about 80% of cancer cases are carcinoma.
In order to diagnose cancer, as well as to further differentiate which type of cancer it is, where it originated, whether it has metastasized, the size and number of cancerous tumors, the tumor grade (the degree to which the cancerous cells have deviated from the normal functioning of healthy cells), what treatment is appropriate, etc., medical science has many tools and methods available.
Your physician may use any or all of the following to learn more about your condition:
- Your medical history.
- Your symptoms.
- Complete blood counts and other blood studies.
- Your genetic makeup.
- Imaging studies, including X-rays, CT scans, MRI scans, radionuclide scans, ultrasound, and endoscopies.
- Biopsies (removal and examination of tissue samples).
Some biopsies, such as for the brain, may require surgery to obtain the necessary tissue. It can occasionally happen in such cases that the biopsy process doubles as treatment, if the surgeon is able to remove all the cancerous material when performing the biopsy.
The tissue sample obtained for the biopsy is not simply examined to determine whether or not cancer is present in it. If cancer is discovered, sophisticated molecular tests are then done on the cancer cells themselves, tests that can provide much valuable information about what we’re facing.
Cancer may be treated in many ways, either singly or in combination. The most common cancer treatments are chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery.
The appropriate treatment may also be palliative, meaning it is not possible to attempt a cure through any of the above means, but there are still things that can be done to reduce symptoms, improve quality of life, and preserve comfort and dignity.
There are many excellent sources of information available if you wish to learn more about cancer. For example, among the most valuable cancer websites are:
- The American Cancer Society (www.cancer.org).
- Caring4Cancer (www.caring4cancer.com).
- The National Cancer Institute (www.cancer.gov).
- Navigating Cancer (www.navigatingcancer.com).
Ask us and we’ll be happy to suggest additional resources.