What is Cancer?
Cancer is a group of diseases where abnormal cells divide uncontrollably. It is the second most common cause of death in developing countries.
Understanding Cancer Growth
The human body is made of basic units called cells. Old cells die and new cells are formed in their place, and cells grow and divide in an orderly manner. Sometimes, certain genetic changes interfere with this process and the cells grow abnormally to form lumps. This abnormal growth of cells is called a tumor.
A tumor can be either benign or malignant. A benign tumor is an abnormal growth that doesn’t spread. It is generally harmless and non-cancerous but an increased size may interfere with the normal functions of a few organs. Whereas malignant tumor is an uncontrollable growth where it may attack nearby tissue or spread around the body. These are cancerous and affect the normal functioning of the body.
Some cancers, such as leukemia, do not form solid tumors.
Some cancerous cells spread to other parts of the body through blood or lymphatic systems. This is called metastasis. Metastatic cancers are generally noticed in an advanced stage and are more difficult to treat.
What are the Types of Cancer?
Cancer can occur anywhere in the body. Doctors divide cancer into types based on where it began.
There are five key types of cancer:
- Carcinomas: Carcinomas begin in the skin or the tissue that covers the surface of internal organs and glands. Examples include skin cancer, lung cancer, prostate cancer, and breast cancer.
- Sarcomas: It is a rare kind of cancer and begins in the tissues that support and connect the body. It can develop in fats, muscles, nerves, tendons, joints, blood vessels, lymph vessels, cartilage, or bone.
- Leukemia: Leukemia is a cancer of the blood and bone marrow. Leukemia begins when healthy blood cells change and grow uncontrollably.
- Lymphoma: Lymphoma is cancer that begins in the lymphatic system, which is a network of vessels and glands that help fight infection, also commonly known as the immune system.
- Myeloma: It is the cancer of plasma cells which replaces normal WBC that fights against diseases and infections.
What Lifestyle Changes Can Help You Avoid the Risk of Cancer?
Although certain types of cancer depend on genetic mutations and cannot be completely avoided, still there are a few lifestyle changes that can be made to reduce the risk:
- Don’t use tobacco or gutkha as it increases the chances of oral cancer
- Eat a healthy diet high on fiber, filled with fruits and vegetables and less on red meat and fried food
- Quit smoking and drinking
- Maintain a healthy lifestyle
- Maintain a healthy weight and stay physically active
- Protect yourself from the harmful UV rays
- Practice safe sex
- Don’t share needles
- Get vaccinated for HPV virus and Hepatitis B
- Get screened regularly for various cancers especially if you fall in a high-risk group
Also Read: Read About The 9 Types of Cancer Treatments
What are the Causes of Cancer?
While most cancers do not have a risk factor marker behind them, doctors have listed some of the causes that can trigger your chances to have some type of cancer. Here are the risk factors:
- Age: Cancer is said to develop over years, sometimes decades, and hence people over 65 years of age are most prone to develop some kind of cancer. However, it does not restrict to just old age as there have been increasing numbers of incidences of younger as well as juvenile cases of cancer resulting from genetic or environmental factors.
- Habits: Habits and lifestyle choices account for a common cause behind a number of cancers. Especially, smoking and drinking are the leading causes of cancer in both men and women. Other lifestyle factors are the intake of spicy food, obesity, excessive exposure to the sun, unhygienic personal care and unsafe sex.
- Genetics: There are very low chances of getting cancer due to genetic mutations, however, it cannot be ruled out.
- Environment: Environment plays a key role when it comes to cancer, considering the amount of toxicity we are exposed to and the adulterated food we consume. Smoke in the air, toxic gases, pollution, chemicals such as benzene and asbestos are some of the main reasons behind triggering cancers. Also, adulterated food with carcinogens present is one of the main reasons.
- Health Conditions: A few chronic ailments like ulcerative colitis can increase your risk of having cancer.
Also Read: 9 Warning Signs of Cancer Women Ignore
What are the Symptoms of Cancer?
As cancer grows, it changes the structure of the infected organs/tissue or misplaces nearby organs, nerves or tissue, which usually causes some signs and symptoms. If the cancer is metastatic, one may notice signs or symptoms in different parts of the body.
A tumour on outer organs can be easily spotted and felt whereas deeper tumours go unnoticed for a long time. However, even the smallest tumours would cause symptoms in certain organs like the brain and must be attended to.
Every cancer behaves differently, however, some common signs and symptoms may include:
- Unexplained and sudden weight loss: It is the first sign of cancer. Weight loss is common in people with pancreatic, stomach, esophageal, or lung cancer, but can occur with any type of cancer.
- Unusual Bleeding: It can be noticed in different cancers. Coughing up blood could be a sign of lung cancer. Blood in stools could be a sign of colon or rectal cancer. Women with cervical or endometrial cancer may experience abnormal vaginal bleeding. Blood in the urine may signal bladder or kidney cancer. Bloody discharge from a woman’s nipple could indicate breast cancer.
- Lump: Lumps can be felt under the skin. They could be typically felt if there is cancer in the breast, testicles, lymph nodes, etc.
- Skin changes: Changes can be yellowing, darkening or redness of the skin, sores that won’t heal, or changes in existing moles.
- Unexplained fevers and night sweat: These are seen when cancer has metastasized. Every cancer patient experiences a fever at some point.
- Persistent cough or hoarseness: In case sign of lung cancer, larynx or thyroid cancer.
- Changes in the mouth: Patchy tongue, sores, bleeding or numbness in the mouth could be signs of oral cancer.
- Difficulty swallowing: It could also be signs of throat or esophageal cancer
- Persistent indigestion or discomfort after eating: These could be signs of stomach or esophageal cancer.
- Changes in bowel or bladder movements: Constipation, diarrhoea, and other bowel problems could be a sign of colon cancer. People with bladder and prostate cancer may experience pain during urination, blood in the urine, or other bladder-function change.s
- Persistent, unexplained muscle or joint pain: Pain is common in later stages when cancer has spread across the body. However, in a few cases of bone or testicular cancer pain could mean an early symptom. Back pain is quite common among colon, rectal, pancreatic or ovarian cancer. Persistent headaches could be a sign of brain tumors.
- Constant weakness or anemia: As cancerous cells eat up a lot of body’s energy supply, one could feel constant weakness.
Often these symptoms are not caused by cancer. Similar symptoms are noticed even in many common problems or benign tumours. However, one shouldn’t ignore symptoms that are unusual to you or has lasted longer.
How is Cancer Diagnosed?
The earlier the cancer is diagnosed and treated, the better are the chances of survival in patients. Unfortunately, 70% of cancer cases that come are detected at a later stage and are difficult to cure.
The first step of diagnosis is when a patient notices unusual symptoms and makes a visit to a general physician. Many times, symptoms are noticed during self-examination or routine checkups as well.
The doctor normally follows below-mentioned procedures to determine if it is cancer and at what stage:
- Examination: A thorough physical examination is done and medical history is recorded.
- Screening: There are few screening tests like colonoscopy, mammography, colposcopy and a Pap smear test that determine cancer. People with higher risk are suggested to undergo genetic tests to identify the possibility of cancer.
- Lab Investigation: Lab tests for blood, urine and stool can help detect abnormalities of cells. Regular PSA tests for men above 50 is suggested for early detection of prostate cancer and CA 125 for ovarian cancer for women. Also, various other tumor markers help in the early detection of some cancers.
- Imaging tests: Also, radiological investigations are useful in diagnosing various cancers which are situated in depth. The commonly used imaging tests are X-ray, Ultrasound (USG), CT scan, Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), mammogram, endoscopy, etc. CT and MRI help in staging cancer.
- Pathological Investigations: For most cancers, a biopsy is the only way of determining cancer and the exact type. In this, a small tissue of the suspected tumor is taken and examined for cancerous cells. Other investigation procedures include FNAC (Fine Needle Aspiration Cytology), PAP smear based on the type of tumor.
- Nuclear Scans: These are used to diagnose metastasis of cancer to distant organs. Example: PET CT scan.
Based on the positive confirmation of cancer and its stage, patients are referred to cancer specialists for further treatment.
How is Cancer Treated?
Treatment options for cancer depend on its type and staging. The goal of treatment is to eradicate cancerous cells and restrict its growth while reducing the damage to nearby cells. The following are the different types of treatments and are often given in conjunction with one another.
- Surgery: To directly remove the tumor
- Chemotherapy: To subject cancer cells with chemicals to kill them
- Radiation therapy: To use radiations to kill cancer cells
- Immunotherapy: To boost the body’s natural defense mechanism to identify and fight cancerous cells.
- Hormonal therapy: It is used where exogenous hormones or anti-hormones drugs are given in certain cancers where cancer cells require hormones for its growth. Eg: breast cancer
- Targeted therapy: It is useful where drugs are used to attack specific functions or vulnerabilities within the cancer cells. Eg: Leukemia
- Palliative Care: In advanced cases, where complete eradication of cancerous cells is not possible, patients are subjected to palliative therapy. This consists of alleviation of pain, stenting (in case of the colon or esophageal cancer), radiotherapy for brain and bone metastasis. The goal is to provide the patient relief from symptoms, side-effects, pain, physical and mental stress.
How to Support a Cancer Patient?
Most cancer treatments are very difficult for the patient and family. One needs support emotionally, financially, psychologically and logistically as well. The aim is to manage pain, weakness, depression and maintain overall health and quality of life.
Post curative treatment, a cancer patient can avail of supportive care. Supportive care mainly includes a range of therapies that help in rehabilitation and recovery or care for those patients nearing the end of their lives for pain relief.
Some of the supportive care includes:
- Alternative medicine: Naturopathy, Ayurvedic, homeopathy and Unani medicines can be used along with or post curative treatment, as natural remedies to boost energy and reduce side effects
- Physiotherapy: It plays an important role in early recovery in most cancer cases, to rebuild strength and overcome some of the physical side-effects of treatment
- Mind-body medicine: Meditation and Yoga exercises are recommended to improve emotional well-being and manage stress.
- Cancer Support Group: There are many cancer support groups and survivor stories that help patients during these times.
- Caregiver Support: Caregivers or Family members of cancer patients also require support in the areas of physical, psychological and spiritual care. They are often counseled for bereavement to manage life after the patient’s death.
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