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In most people's minds there is no scarier diagnosis than that of cancer.  Cancer is often thought of as an untreatable, unbearably painful disease with no cure. However popular this view of cancer may be, it is exaggerated and over-generalized. Cancer is undoubtedly a serious and potentially life-threatening illness. For example, it is the leading cause of death in Americans under the age of 85, and the second leading cause of death in older Americans. There will be 1.5 million new cases of cancer occurring in the United States coming year, and over 570,000 deaths because of it not including basal and squamous skin cancers which are not reported but could add another two million cases per year (ACS, 2010). However, it is a misconception to think that all forms of cancer are untreatable and deadly. The truth of the matter is that there are multiple types of cancer, many of which can today be effectively treated so as to eliminate, reduce or slow the impact of the disease on pat...

Fast Facts: Learn! Fast!

What is cancer?

  • Normal cells in the body grow and divide for a period of time and then stop growing and dividing, and only reproduce themselves as necessary to replace defective or dying cells.
  • Cancer occurs when this reproduction of cells goes out of control.
  • Cancer is a disease characterized by uncontrolled, uncoordinated and undesirable cell division.
  • Unlike normal cells, cancer cells continue to grow and divide for their whole lives, replicating into more and more harmful cells.
  • As cancer cells divide and replicate themselves, they often form into a clump of cancer cells known as a tumor.
  • Tumors cause many of the symptoms of cancer by pressuring, crushing and destroying surrounding non-cancerous cells and tissues.
  • Tumors come in two forms.
  • Benign tumors are not cancerous and do not grow and spread to the extent of cancerous tumors. They are usually not life threatening.
  • Malignant tumors grow and spread to other areas of the body in a process known as metastasis.

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What types of cancer can a person get?

  • Though cancer is often thought of as a single disease, there are, in fact, many different types of cancer.
  • Each type has a different set of risk factors, rates of progression, treatment options, and prognosis.
  • The subtypes of cancer get classified and named based on the area of the body where they are originally found.
  • Five of the most common types of cancer are breast cancer, colorectal cancer, lung cancer, prostate cancer, and skin cancer.

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What are the causes of cancer?

  • The causes of cancer are not fully understood, but years of research have brought to light risk factors that increase people's chances of getting particular types of cancer.
  • Some of these risk factors are unable to be avoided, while others can be avoided by choosing to live a healthy lifestyle.
  • For example, smoking cigarettes is an avoidable risk factor. Changing your lifestyle to get rid of unhealthy choices such as smoking can be difficult to accomplish (tobacco is an addictive drug and stopping smoking means beating that addiction), but the rewards are real.
  • Stopping smoking and similar healthy lifestyle changes will not insure that you never get cancer, but they will reduce your cancer risk.
  • This is true whether you have never had cancer before, or if you have previously beaten cancer and are wondering what you can do to reduce your chances of relapse.
  • Each specific type of cancer is different and consequently has a different set of associated risk factors.

For more information about risk factors for breast cancer
For more information about risk factors for colorectal cancer
For more information about risk factors for lung cancer
For more information about risk factors for prostate cancer
For more information about risk factors for skin cancer

What are the stages of cancer?

  • Following a positive identification of cancer, doctors will try to establish the stage of the cancer.
  • Cancers are ranked into stages depending on the specific characteristics that they possess; stages correspond with severity.
  • Determining the stage of a given cancer helps doctors to make treatment recommendations, to form a likely outcome scenario for what will happen to the patient (prognosis), and to communicate effectively with other doctors.
  • There are multiple staging scales in use.
  • One of the most common ranks cancers into five progressively more severe stages: 0, I, II, III, and IV. Stage 0 cancer is cancer that is just beginning, involving just a few cells. Stages I, II, III, and IV represent progressively more advanced cancers, characterized by larger tumor sizes, more tumors, the aggressiveness with which the cancer grows and spreads, and the extent to which the cancer has spread to infect adjacent tissues and body organs.
  • Another popular staging system is known as the TNM system, a three dimensional rating of cancer extensiveness. Using the TNM system, doctors rate the cancers they find on each of three scales, where T stands for tumor size, N stands for lymph node involvement, and M stands for metastasis (the degree to which cancer has spread beyond its original locations). Larger scores on each of the three scales indicate more advanced cancer.
  • Still another staging system, called summary staging, is in use by the National Cancer Institute for its SEER program. Summary stages include: "In situ" or early cancer (stage 0 cancer), "localized" cancer which has not yet begun to spread, "regional" cancer which has spread to local lymph nodes but not yet to distant organs, "distant" cancer which has spread to distant organs, and finally, "unknown" cancer to describe anything not fitting elsewhere.

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What are the symptoms of cancer?

  • Every type of cancer is different, and has a unique set of symptoms associated with it.
  • Some cancer symptoms are manifest outwardly, and are relatively easy to notice and identify (such as a lump in the breast for breast cancer, or blood in the stool corresponding to colorectal cancer).
  • Other symptoms are observable, but harder to decipher.
  • Still other forms of cancer produce no observable symptoms until they are at a very advanced (and therefore hard to treat) stage.
  • Specific symptom detail for cancer subtypes is provided in our cancer subtype documents.

For more information about breast cancer symptoms
For more information about colorectal cancer symptoms
For more information about lung cancer symptoms
For more information about prostate cancer symptoms
For more information about skin cancer symptoms

What are treatments for cancer?

  • Treatments vary based on the type, location, and size of the cancer being treated, as well as patient's age, medical history, and overall health.
  • Each form of cancer is different and calls for a different set of treatment approaches.
  • Chemotherapy and radiation therapy are two common approaches used to treat almost all types of cancer.
  • Chemotherapy is commonly used for patients whose cancer has possibly spread to various locations in the body. It can be used to reduce cancer symptoms and pain, and to slow the growth of cancerous tumors.
  • Chemotherapy uses a powerful combination of drugs that are either taken by mouth or injected directly into the bloodstream to target cells in the body that divide and grow quickly and are usually able to destroy these cells.
  • Chemotherapy drugs also kill some regular healthy cells causing side effects such as fatigue, nausea, and hair loss.
  • Radiation therapy is most commonly used to treat cancer that has not spread from its original location.
  • The goal of radiation therapy is to kill cancer cells or at least limit their ability to grow and divide by damaging their genetic material.
  • Like chemotherapy, some normal, healthy cells can also become damaged through radiation therapy.

For more information about breast cancer treatment
For more information about colorectal cancer treatment
For more information about lung cancer treatment
For more information about prostate cancer treatment
For more information about skin cancer treatment

What is recovery from cancer like?

  • Being diagnosed with cancer of any type is a frightening and discouraging prospect which can shatter the illusion control that allows most people to live relatively carefree lives.
  • In the aftermath of cancer, it is normal to experience a sort of hyper-vigilance for health symptoms, and associated fears that even benign aches and pains may indicate a recurrence of cancer.
  • Cognitive psychotherapy can be helpful in learning to manage anxiety symptoms.
  • Careful and systematic cancer monitoring with your physician and avoidance of cancer causing risk factors will insure you are doing all you can to avoid relapse.

For more information about recovering from breast cancer
For more information about recovering from colorectal cancer
For more information about recovering from lung cancer
For more information about recovering from prostate cancer
For more information about recovering from skin cancer

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