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  • Writer's pictureTatiana Phillips

Understanding Cancer: A Guide In Two Parts - Part One

Part One: What Is Cancer? What Are The Signs and Symptoms?

Cancer. The “C” word. Nobody wants to be told by their physician that they have cancer or are at risk for cancer. But, if you are one of the many who may hear it at some point, do you understand what cancer is? Cancer was often a death sentence years ago due to the lack of treatments or options once diagnosed. Now, we are much more aware of what causes cancer, the risks, what signs or symptoms may show up, and what you can do about it if you have it.

One in three people will be diagnosed with cancer in the United States alone. Globally, one in six people will die due to cancer. But these statistics are not meant to scare you. Instead, think of them as a reason to learn more about cancer and what you can do to prevent it from happening to you.

What Is Cancer?

Definition and Basic Characteristics of Cancer

The American Cancer Society has an easy-to-understand definition of what cancer is. “You are made up of trillions of cells that, over your lifetime, normally grow and divide as needed. When cells are abnormal or get old, they usually die. Cancer starts when something goes wrong in this process, and your cells keep making new cells, and the old or abnormal ones don't die when they should. Cancer cells can crowd out normal cells as they grow out of control. This makes it hard for your body to work the way it should.”

How Cancer Develops in the Body

Cancer cells don’t respond to our bodies in the same way that normal cells do. For instance, cancer cells ignore our body's signals to normal cells to stop dividing and die. When that happens, cancer cells start invading the body, latch onto nearby areas, and tell the nearest blood vessels to grow around the cancer cells. The blood vessels supply the cancer cells with what is needed to remain protected from our body’s immune system. Typically, our bodies can regulate dead or abnormal cells, but cancer cells hide from our immune systems, allowing their spread to continue. When cancer cells are present, they rely on nutrients, making their growth more rapid.

Common Types of Cancer and Their Prevalence

Cancer typically falls into two categories, which are blood cancers and solid tumor cancers. The cancer cells grow, spread, and respond to treatments differently within those two categories. That is why the success of cancer treatment may require relying on different medications, surgeries, treatment sessions, and experimental drugs.

  • Hematologic (blood) cancer: Leukemia, Lymphoma, and Multiple Myeloma

  • Solid tumor cancer: Any organs or tissues in the body. The most common solid tumor cancers are breast, lung and bronchus, prostate, and colorectal.

Solid tumor cancers make up 50% of all new cancer diagnoses, with the remaining 50% typically linked with melanoma of the skin, bladder, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, kidney and renal pelvis, uterus, leukemia, pancreas, and thyroid.

Cancer Signs, Symptoms, and Seeking Medical Attention

Common Signs and Symptoms of Cancer

Cancer cells infiltrate our body’s system by destroying normal cells. That is why “battling cancer” describes someone diagnosed with cancer. That battle has already begun by the time you notice the signals to your body through signs and symptoms. Some signs to look out for include very heavy night sweats, extreme fatigue, weight loss or gain of 10 lbs. or more for no apparent reason, swelling or lumps anywhere on the body, headaches, vision changes, difficulty swallowing, unexplained bleeding or bruising, persistent cough or trouble breathing, persistent or unexplained muscle or joint pain, skin changes such as a lump that bleeds or turns scaly, a new mole or a change in an existing mole, nausea or vomiting, bladder or bowel changes, eating problems, and yellowing or darkening of the skin. Unfortunately, cancer symptoms and signs can sometimes be mistaken for other ailments, so if there are any abnormal signs, it is best to make an appointment with your doctor. Listening to your body and paying attention to anything that feels or appears abnormal is crucial to recognizing when to seek medical attention.

When To Seek Medical Attention

If there are any persistent signs or symptoms that you are concerned with, contact your doctor as soon as possible. If you’re unsure what doctors or medical care are available to meet your needs, contact one of our trained Health Community Workers via telephone or email.

Stay tuned for Part Two of Understanding Cancer, including Prevention, Treatment, and Access to Healthcare.

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