Cancer 101 - The Basics

First, everyone should know that cancer is not just one disease, but is over a hundred different diseases.  In general, most cancers behave in the same way, in the sense that cancer cells reproduce out of control.  However, different cancers will have their own unique characteristics, will affect different parts of the body, will respond to different treatments in different ways and will behave differently than one another.

The body's healthy cells have a limited lifespan.  When they age, become damaged and near the point where they cannot function properly, they die and are replaced by new cells.  Each cell's genetic material, or DNA, will direct the cell as to whether it should reproduce, or when it should die because it can no longer function properly.  In some cases, the genetic material within cells become damaged and can cause a mutation.  If this mutation disrupts the signalling for an unhealthy cell to die it can continue to reproduce in this unhealthy state.  Because this cell has now moved past the body's natural regulatory mechanism (that is programmed cell death), the body has one back-up mechanism in place - the Immune System.  Once this cell has moved beyond the point where it is a healthy, properly functioning cell, the immune system should be able to recognize that this cell poses a threat to the body, and take steps to eliminate/kill it.  In some cases this doesn't happen, because for whatever reason, the immune system is unable to recognize this errant cell as a threat.  This damaged cell is then able to reproduce uncontrollably  and a mass of cells starts to form, ultimately leading to the formation of a tumor.

Tumors are masses of cells that originate from a particular tissue, be it breast, prostate, lung, colon, etc., but are no longer cells that function as the healthy cells of that tissue because they have been damaged.  As they continue to multiply, these 'non functioning' cells start to interfere with the proper functioning of healthy tissue, and that is where the problem arises.  To make matters worse, some of these cells can break free from the original tumor and travel to another part of the body and start the formation of a new tumor in that new location, therefor interfering with the healthy functioning of that tissue.  This is called metastasis.

What is the difference between a benign tumor and a malignant tumor?  A benign tumor technically is not cancer.  It does not invade and damage healthy tissue in the same way as a cancer does, it usually remains in one location and does not spread to other parts of the body.  Benign tumors in most cases are not life threatening.  A malignant tumor is cancer and tends to be more aggressive, damages surrounding tissue, steals nutrition from healthy cells by creating it's own blood supply and can spread to other parts of the body.

The last important thing to note is that when a cancer starts in a particular part of the body it is known as a primary cancer.  For example, a cancer that originates from breast tissue is considered a primary breast cancer.  If the cancer spreads to another part of the body, it is still the same cancer as the primary cancer, but is termed a secondary cancer affecting that new part of the body.  For example, if a breast cancer spreads to the brain, you have a secondary breast cancer in the brain.  Using this example, there is sometimes a misconception that if breast cancer has spread to the brain, you now also have brain cancer (which is not true, you have breast cancer affecting the brain, not brain cancer).  This is important because, again using this example, brain cancer is treated in one way, breast cancer is treated differently.  If breast cancer has spread to the brain, it is still treated in the same way as breast cancer, not in the way that brain cancer is treated (with regards to medications).

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