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Use our cancer glossary to learn more.
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Cancer is a group of diseases in which abnormal cells divide without control. These cancer cells, which can originate almost anywhere in the body, can invade nearby tissues and can spread through the bloodstream and lymphatic system to other parts of the body.
More than one million people are diagnosed with cancer each year. Almost half of American men and one third of American women will have some type of cancer at some point during their lifetime. While anyone can get cancer at any age, about 77 percent of all cancers are diagnosed in people age of 55 and older, and the rate of occurrence varies by racial and ethnic groups.
The main types of cancers are: carcinoma, sarcoma, lymphoma, leukemia and myeloma.
- Carcinomas are the most common types of cancer. They arise from the cells that cover external and internal body surfaces such as the skin, lung, breast, and colon.
- Sarcomas are cancers arising from cells found in the supporting tissues of the body such as bone, cartilage, fat, connective tissue and muscle.
- Lymphomas are cancers that arise in the lymph nodes and tissues of the body's immune system.
- Leukemia is cancer that starts in immature blood cells that grow in the bone marrow and causes abnormal blood cells to accumulate in large numbers in the bloodstream.
- Myeloma is a cancer that develops in the plasma cells of bone marrow.
The signs and symptoms vary depending on the specific kind of cancer, but there are some general signs and symptoms that may indicate a need for testing. These include fatigue, a sore that does not heal, nagging cough, pain, unexplained weight loss, fever and changes on the skin. Although there could be other reasons for these sign and symptoms, anyone experiencing these should consult their physician.
Cancer cells develop because of damage to DNA, a substance in every cell that directs all activity of the cell. Usually when DNA becomes damaged, the body is able to repair it; however, some times it is not repaired and the cell becomes abnormal. Scientists are working to better understand what causes DNA to become damaged. Some people inherit damaged DNA, which accounts for inherited cancers. More often, though, a person's DNA becomes damaged by environmental factors or individual behaviors such as smoking.
No. Some tumors are benign (noncancerous) and do not spread to other parts of the body. Cancerous tumors are called malignant.
Risk factors vary by kind of cancer. A risk factor is anything that increases a person’s chance of getting a disease. Some risk factors can be negated, such as factors in the environment or lifestyle choices, and others, such as age, family history and race, cannot.
Standard types of treatment for cancer are surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, hormone therapy and biological therapy. These treatments may be used alone, but often combined to maximize the patients’ long-term survival. Surgery and radiation therapy are considered local treatments, as they target the cancer cells in the tumor and near it. Chemotherapy, hormone therapy and biological therapy are systemic treatments, meaning they travel through the bloodstream reaching cancer cells all over the body. Patients should work closely with their Oncologist to determine the best individualized treatment options.
Staging is the process of determining how far the cancer has spread. It is important to know the stage of the cancer before determining which treatment options are best. Most often, physicians use the TNM system for staging. This system gives three key pieces of information:
- T describes the size of the tumor and whether the cancer has spread to nearby tissue and organs.
- N describes how far the cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes.
- M shows whether the cancer has spread (metastasized) to other organs of the body.
Remission is a decrease in or disappearance of signs and symptoms of cancer. In partial remission, some, but not all, signs and symptoms of cancer have disappeared. In complete remission, all signs and symptoms of cancer have disappeared, although cancer still may be in the body.
Today, a cure may be available depending on the cancer type and its extent. Tremendous scientific advances have significantly improved patient survival rates, and many patients today will never have recurrence of their disease. However, even after successful treatment, there may remain cancerous or precancerous cells in the body. Cancer patients, must maintain a high level of vigilance for the rest of their life, as the risk still remains. Clearly, this question is best left to a discussion with your oncologist.
Survival rates vary by kind of cancer, but for all cancers diagnosed between 1996 and 2002, the 5-year relative survival rate is 66 percent, up from 51 percent between 1975 and 1977. This increase is largely attributed to earlier detection and new or improved treatments.
Community-based cancer care integrates all aspects of outpatient cancer care, from laboratory and diagnostic imaging capabilities, to chemotherapy and radiation therapy in treatment centers located within patients’ communities. It is based on the concept that providing convenient, high-quality care closer to patients and their support networks aids the maintenance of quality of life and improves patient adherence to therapy, a crucial element in the treatment process.
The convenience of community-based cancer care enables patients to access the most advanced cancer technologies in one location within their communities. This helps eliminate the burden of extensive travel to distant or multiple locations. In addition, an integrated setting facilitates the close coordination of all aspects of the patient’s care. It also allows patients to be near their supportive circle of friends and family during their treatment.
Clinical trials are studies of new or experimental treatments in patients. This type of study is offered to eligible patients when there is reason to believe that the treatment being studied may offer benefits to the patient, such as improved outcomes or side effect management. There are three phases of clinical trials a treatment must complete before it is eligible for approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Phase I is to study the best way to give a new treatment and study its safety. It is often the first time the specific agent has been tested in a human, outside a laboratory. Phase II is designed to see if the treatment works. Phase III involves large numbers of patients and divides patients into two groups—a control group and the group receiving the new treatment.