Education is an important component of your care. Join us in being an advocate for your knowledge and empowerment. The following introductory cancer information should help you get started on understanding your condition. During the course of treatment detailed information specific to your disease will also be provided by your care team.
What is Cancer?
Our bodies are made up of different types of tissue that form such things as bones, muscles, lungs and mucous membranes. Tissue is made up of microscopic building blocks called cells, which have a variety of shapes and sizes. Each cell is specialized to perform a specific function within our body. Normally, cells divide to produce additional cells only when the body needs them.
Cancer occurs when some of the cells start dividing, without control or order, when they are not required. The extra cells form a mass of tissue, called a growth or tumor, which can be benign or malignant.
If you have a benign tumor, it is not cancerous. A benign tumor is rarely a serious threat to one’s life because cells from benign tumors do not spread to other parts of the body. Generally, the tumor can be removed and, in many cases, it will not return.
If you have a malignant tumor, it is cancer. Cancer cells can invade and damage nearby tissues and organs. They can also break away from a malignant tumor and enter into the bloodstream or the lymphatic system. When this occurs, the cancer spreads from the original or primary site to form additional tumors in other parts of the body. The spread of cancerous cells is called metastasis.
Cancer is a group of more than 100 different diseases. Most cancers are named for the type of cell or the organ in which the cell started. When cancer spreads to an additional site, the new tumor has the same kind of abnormal cells and the same name as the primary tumor from which it grew. For example, if lung cancer spreads to the liver, the cancer cells in the liver are lung cancer cells. Therefore, the disease is called metastatic lung cancer, not liver cancer.
What Causes Cancer?
We do not have a complete understanding of the causes of cancer; however, it is clear that cancer is not caused by an injury, such as a bump or bruise. Although being infected by certain viruses may increase the risk of some types of cancer, cancer is not contagious. No one can “catch” cancer from another person.
Cancer develops gradually as a result of a complex mix of factors related to the environment, lifestyle and heredity. Many risk factors can increase your chances of getting cancer. As an example, an estimated 80 percent of all cancers are related to either the use of tobacco products, unhealthy food and drink consumption and/or, to a lesser degree, exposure to radiation or a carcinogen (cancer causing agents).
Some individuals are more sensitive than others to factors that can cause cancer. Inherited risk factors are unavoidable, however, many of the other risk factors such as tobacco use, can be avoided or reduced.
How is Cancer Diagnosed?
After a physical exam, a physician may order a variety of tests and lab work. Tests may include imaging procedures (such as CT, MRI or PET scans which produce pictures of areas inside the body) or endoscopy procedures, (which allow the doctor to look directly inside certain organs). In most cases, the doctor will also order a biopsy, (a procedure in which a sample of tissue is removed for a pathologist to examine under a microscope to determine if the tissue has cancer cells).
How is Cancer Treated?
Cancer can be treated in a variety of ways depending upon the type, location and severity of the cancer as well as the age of the patient and their overall health. Patients with cancer are often treated by a team of specialists which may include a medical oncologist, a radiation oncologist, a surgeon, and others. The team of doctors determines the best treatment or combination of treatments for the individual patient. Treatments may include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, surgery, hormone therapy or biological therapy.
How to Cope With Cancer
Many patients agree that their ability to cope during cancer diagnosis and treatment is directly influenced by the care and concerns of others. During this time, many family members and friends want to reach out and offer their support and services. It is important for the patient to accept these acts of kindness. It allows the patient to keep in contact with others and it also allows loved ones and friends to feel helpful and supportive. The patient is not the only one who feels isolated and vulnerable when he or she has been diagnosed with cancer. It is also distressing and difficult for those individuals who are close to the patient. Support from friends, family, church and community will provide strength and assistance when coping with cancer.
Some patients and their families have a very difficult time coping with the stresses of cancer and cancer treatment. Support from others may not be enough. In this situation, social and psychological services can offer individual and family counseling. Each of our practices has a licensed social worker. Please ask the staff at your practice for more information and to book an appointment.
The following websites are suggestions that may provide additional information on specific cancers and other cancer-related data. With an overabundance of web sites on the subject of cancer and other life-threatening diseases, please be aware that not all sites are created equal. If you question any of the information you read, please feel free to discuss your questions with your medical team.