How cancer develops, spreads, and is treated

When someone tells you about a friend or family member having cancer, you often hear someone say, “He has cancer.” Yet, cancer isn’t just one disease. There are, in fact, more than 200 different cancers, and each kind can originate in any cell or organ in the body. All cancers have one thing in common – abnormal, uncontrolled cell growth.

Normally, cells grow and divide in an orderly cycle to produce more cells only when the body needs them. This is a normal and healthy body process. Sometimes, however, cells keep dividing when new cells are not needed. These extra cells form a mass of tissue, called a growth or tumor.

Tumors can be benign or malignant:

  • Benign tumors are not cancerous. They can often be removed and, in most cases, they don’t come back. Cells from benign tumors do not spread to other parts of the body. Most important, benign tumors aren’t a threat to your life.
  • Malignant tumors, however, are cancerous. They are made up of abnormal cells that divide without control or order. They can invade and damage nearby tissues and organs. Also, cancer cells can break away from a malignant tumor and enter the bloodstream. That is how cancer spreads from the original cancer site to form new tumors in other organs. The spread of cancer is called metastasis.

When cancer spreads from its original location to another part of the body, the new tumor has the same kind of abnormal cells and is considered the same cancer type as the primary tumor. For example, if lung cancer spreads to the brain, the cancer cells in the brain are actually lung cancer cells, and the disease is called metastatic lung cancer.

Forms of cancer

There are three basic forms of cancer, which are named for the body tissues where they begin:

  • Sarcomas are found in fibrous or soft tissues, such as muscles, bone, or blood vessels.
  • Carcinomas are found in the epithelium – cells that cover the body surface and line body organs, such as the breast, colon, and lung.
  • Leukemias and lymphomas are found in blood cells of the bone marrow or lymph node cells.

Cancer can develop at almost any stage in life. There are some types of cancer that develop early, such as retinoblastoma (a cancer of the eye); others tend to develop in childhood, such as various forms of leukemia; and, of course, there are many forms that develop during adulthood, such as breast, colon, and prostate cancers.

Cancer growth

It can take a year or years before a growing tumor (benign or malignant) can be detected, either on physical examination, or on an x-ray or other test. Each form of cancer has its own growth rate.

A cancer that is “in situ carcinoma” – which in Latin means “in place” – refers to a cancer that is confined to one small area and is in an early stage of growth. Cancer or a “carcinoma” that is “in situ” may never develop further. However, because it may grow and become invasive and malignant, it is usually removed surgically, if possible.

Some cancers remain “in situ” or localized, while other cancers are “regional,” invading adjacent body organs. Other cancers even metastasize (spread) into the blood or lymphatic vessels, where they are carried through the body to a distant site or sites.

Treating cancer

There are different ways of treating cancer – mainly with surgery, radiation, and/or chemotherapy. However, because there are so many different types of cancer, research so far hasn’t found a single cause or single cure for cancer. Yet, because of improved diagnosis and newer cancer treatments, doctors are curing approximately 58% of cancer cases, and the current relative 5-year survival rate is about 60% for all types of cancer.

The National Cancer Institute
The American Cancer Society
Rosenbaum EH, Rosenbaum Isadora. Supportive Cancer Care. Naperville, Ill: Sourcebooks;2001.

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