What Is Cancer? What Causes Cancer?
Cancer is a class of diseases characterized by out-of-control cell growth. There are over 100 different types of cancer, and each is classified by the type of cell that is initially affected.
Cancer harms the body when damaged cells divide uncontrollably to form lumps or masses of tissue called tumors (except in the case of leukemia where cancer prohibits normal blood function by abnormal cell division in the blood stream). Tumors can grow and interfere with the digestive, nervous, and circulatory systems, and they can release hormones that alter body function. Tumors that stay in one spot and demonstrate limited growth are generally considered to be benign.
More dangerous, or malignant, tumors form when two things occur:
- a cancerous cell manages to move throughout the body using the blood or lymph systems, destroying healthy tissue in a process called invasion
- that cell manages to divide and grow, making new blood vessels to feed itself in a process called angiogenesis.
When a tumor successfully spreads to other parts of the body and grows, invading and destroying other healthy tissues, it is said to have metastasized. This process itself is called metastasis, and the result is a serious condition that is very difficult to treat.
How cancer spreads – scientists reported in Nature Communications (October 2012 issue) that they have discovered an important clue as to why cancer cells spread. It has something to do with their adhesion (stickiness) properties. Certain molecular interactions between cells and the scaffolding that holds them in place (extracellular matrix) cause them to become unstuck at the original tumor site, they become dislodged, move on and then reattach themselves at a new site.
The researchers say this discovery is important because cancer mortality is mainly due to metastatic tumors, those that grow from cells that have traveled from their original site to another part of the body. Only 10% of cancer deaths are caused by the primary tumors.
The scientists, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, say that finding a way to stop cancer cells from sticking to new sites could interfere with metastatic disease, and halt the growth of secondary tumors.
In 2007, cancer claimed the lives of about 7.6 million people in the world. Physicians and researchers who specialize in the study, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of cancer are called oncologists.
Malignant cells are more agile than non-malignant ones – scientists from the Physical Sciences-Oncology Centers, USA, reported in the journal Scientific Reports (April 2013 issue) that malignant cells are much “nimbler” than non-malignant ones. Malignant cells can pass more easily through smaller gaps, as well as applying a much greater force on their environment compared to other cells.
Professor Robert Austin and team created a new catalogue of the physical and chemical features of cancerous cells with over 100 scientists from 20 different centers across the United States.
The authors believe their catalogue will help oncologists detect cancerous cells in patients early on, thus preventing the spread of the disease to other parts of the body.
Prof. Austin said “By bringing together different types of experimental expertise to systematically compare metastatic and non-metastatic cells, we have advanced our knowledge of how metastasis occurs.”
What causes cancer?
Cancer is ultimately the result of cells that uncontrollably grow and do not die. Normal cells in the body follow an orderly path of growth, division, and death. Programmed cell death is called apoptosis, and when this process breaks down, cancer begins to form. Unlike regular cells, cancer cells do not experience programmatic death and instead continue to grow and divide. This leads to a mass of abnormal cells that grows out of control.
What is cancer? – Video
A short, 3D, animated introduction to cancer. This was originally created by BioDigital Systems and used in the Stand Up 2 Cancer telethon.
Genes – the DNA type
Cells can experience uncontrolled growth if there are damages or mutations to DNA, and therefore, damage to the genes involved in cell division. Four key types of gene are responsible for the cell division process: oncogenes tell cells when to divide, tumor suppressor genes tell cells when not to divide, suicide genes control apoptosis and tell the cell to kill itself if something goes wrong, and DNA-repair genes instruct a cell to repair damaged DNA.
Cancer occurs when a cell’s gene mutations make the cell unable to correct DNA damage and unable to commit suicide. Similarly, cancer is a result of mutations that inhibit oncogene and tumor suppressor gene function, leading to uncontrollable cell growth.
Carcinogens are a class of substances that are directly responsible for damaging DNA, promoting or aiding cancer. Tobacco, asbestos, arsenic, radiation such as gamma and x-rays, the sun, and compounds in car exhaust fumes are all examples of carcinogens. When our bodies are exposed to carcinogens, free radicals are formed that try to steal electrons from other molecules in the body. Theses free radicals damage cells and affect their ability to function normally.
Genes – the family type
Cancer can be the result of a genetic predisposition that is inherited from family members. It is possible to be born with certain genetic mutations or a fault in a gene that makes one statistically more likely to develop cancer later in life.
Other medical factors
As we age, there is an increase in the number of possible cancer-causing mutations in our DNA. This makes age an important risk factor for cancer. Several viruses have also been linked to cancer such as: human papillomavirus (a cause of cervical cancer), hepatitis B and C (causes of liver cancer), and Epstein-Barr virus (a cause of some childhood cancers). Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) – and anything else that suppresses or weakens the immune system – inhibits the body’s ability to fight infections and increases the chance of developing cancer.
What are the symptoms of cancer?
Cancer symptoms are quite varied and depend on where the cancer is located, where it has spread, and how big the tumor is. Some cancers can be felt or seen through the skin – a lump on the breast or testicle can be an indicator of cancer in those locations. Skin cancer (melanoma) is often noted by a change in a wart or mole on the skin. Some oral cancers present white patches inside the mouth or white spots on the tongue.
Other cancers have symptoms that are less physically apparent. Some brain tumors tend to present symptoms early in the disease as they affect important cognitive functions. Pancreas cancers are usually too small to cause symptoms until they cause pain by pushing against nearby nerves or interfere with liver function to cause a yellowing of the skin and eyes called jaundice. Symptoms also can be created as a tumor grows and pushes against organs and blood vessels. For example, colon cancers lead to symptoms such as constipation, diarrhea, and changes in stool size. Bladder or prostate cancers cause changes in bladder function such as more frequent or infrequent urination.
As cancer cells use the body’s energy and interfere with normal hormone function, it is possible to present symptoms such as fever, fatigue, excessive sweating, anemia, and unexplained weight loss. However, these symptoms are common in several other maladies as well. For example, coughing and hoarseness can point to lung or throat cancer as well as several other conditions.
When cancer spreads, or metastasizes, additional symptoms can present themselves in the newly affected area. Swollen or enlarged lymph nodes are common and likely to be present early. If cancer spreads to the brain, patients may experience vertigo, headaches, or seizures. Spreading to the lungs may cause coughing and shortness of breath. In addition, the liver may become enlarged and cause jaundice and bones can become painful, brittle, and break easily. Symptoms of metastasis ultimately depend on the location to which the cancer has spread.
How is cancer classified?
There are five broad groups that are used to classify cancer.
- Carcinomas are characterized by cells that cover internal and external parts of the body such as lung, breast, and colon cancer.
- Sarcomas are characterized by cells that are located in bone, cartilage, fat, connective tissue, muscle, and other supportive tissues.
- Lymphomas are cancers that begin in the lymph nodes and immune system tissues.
- Leukemias are cancers that begin in the bone marrow and often accumulate in the bloodstream.
- Adenomas are cancers that arise in the thyroid, the pituitary gland, the adrenal gland, and other glandular tissues.
Cancers are often referred to by terms that contain a prefix related to the cell type in which the cancer originated and a suffix such as -sarcoma, -carcinoma, or just -oma. Common prefixes include:
- Adeno- = gland
- Chondro- = cartilage
- Erythro- = red blood cell
- Hemangio- = blood vessels
- Hepato- = liver
- Lipo- = fat
- Lympho- = white blood cell
- Melano- = pigment cell
- Myelo- = bone marrow
- Myo- = muscle
- Osteo- = bone
- Uro- = bladder
- Retino- = eye
- Neuro- = brain
How is cancer diagnosed and staged?
Early detection of cancer can greatly improve the odds of successful treatment and survival. Physicians use information from symptoms and several other procedures to diagnose cancer. Imaging techniques such as X-rays, CT scans, MRI scans, PET scans, and ultrasound scans are used regularly in order to detect where a tumor is located and what organs may be affected by it. Doctors may also conduct an endoscopy, which is a procedure that uses a thin tube with a camera and light at one end, to look for abnormalities inside the body.
Extracting cancer cells and looking at them under a microscope is the only absolute way to diagnose cancer. This procedure is called a biopsy. Other types of molecular diagnostic tests are frequently employed as well. Physicians will analyze your body’s sugars, fats, proteins, and DNA at the molecular level. For example, cancerous prostate cells release a higher level of a chemical called PSA (prostate-specific antigen) into the bloodstream that can be detected by a blood test. Molecular diagnostics, biopsies, and imaging techniques are all used together to diagnose cancer.