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Cancer

 

Definition

Most normal cells in the body go through life cycles dictated by a variety of complex genetic control mechanisms. A cancerous cell is one that loses or does not respond to these controls and is therefore able to grow and multiply unchecked. Eventually, groups of cancerous cells form masses called tumors which invade the bodyís normal tissues. 

The reasons why normal cells develop the ability to grow uncontrolled are also very complicated. The process starts with numerous genetic flaws, which can be passed down through families or acquired over time and through exposure to carcinogens (cancer-causing substances). 

Cigarette smoke, for example, has been shown to make someone susceptible to cancer by altering the bodyís genes and therefore its natural ability to destroy an abnormal (cancerous) cell.  

Besides smoking, other risk factors include:

  • family history of cancer
  • exposure to certain viruses
  • radiation, from sunlight, x-rays, uranium, or other sources
  • exposure to various chemicals or other substances, such as asbestos and arsenic
  • a diet high in fat, pickled or smoked foods
  • alcohol consumption

Nearly 60% of all cancers occur in people over 65 years of age. Men, especially, have a higher cancer rate in their senior years than they do before age 60. The association of aging and cancer risk has to do with length of exposure to carcinogens, accumulation of genetic flaws over time, and decreasing strength of the immune system.    

There are many types of cancer and they produce a wide range of specific symptoms. Your physician can provide you with leaflets or other literature describing what to be on the lookout for. You can also get information on the symptoms of cancer (and many other topics) from the American Cancer Society (www.cancer.org) or the National Cancer Institute (or 1-800-4-Cancer)  

Some cancers can be detected before they produce any symptoms at all. For example, your doctor may have you undergo a mammogram, blood tests or stool analysis every year or so to check for evidence of cancerous cells. Regular visits to your doctor and maintaining an overall healthy lifestyle are important components in cancer prevention. 

Treatment

There are two key aims in cancer treatment: to eliminate a tumor and to prevent cancerous cells from spreading to other parts of the body.  

To achieve these aims, a patient might undergo:

  • surgery
  • chemotherapy (the use of powerful drugs designed to kill the cancer cells)
  • hormone therapy (drugs that alter the bodyís hormone levels, because hormones appear to play a role in the development and spread of some types of cancer)
  • radiation therapy (in which a strong beam of radiation is aimed directly at the site of the body affected), or a combination of some of these types of treatment

The treatment that is right for an individual and a particular case of cancer depends on many factors, including the type, site and severity of the cancer and the patientís own preferences. 

Cancer remains a common disease but it can often be treated successfully, and research into new therapies and measures for prevention is continuing at a rapid pace. 

 

 

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