Cancer is one of those diseases that have baffled doctors and scientists around the world for a long time. It is characterized by an uncontrolled multiplication of abnormal cells in the body. These abnormal cells invade the normal cells and disrupt their functioning.
There are over a hundred types of cancer, and the name of each depends on the organ they affect. Cancerous cells and tissues have abnormal cell growth rates, shapes, sizes and functioning. Cancer generally progresses in stages; in many cases it forms a tumor-like lump of tissue, and eventually spreads to other parts of the body via the lymphatic system. When a tumor spreads to other parts of the body by growing, invading and destroying healthy tissue, it is said to have metastasized. It often results in a life-threatening condition that is very difficult to treat.
Causes of Cancer
Normal cells have a defined life pattern. They grow, divide and eventually die. However, the same does not hold true for cancer cells. They show uncontrollable growth and do not die. When cells show such a characteristic they are said to have become cancerous. There are various causes of cancer, and they are listed as follows:
- Damage or mutations to DNA: There are four key types of cells that take care of the cell division process. 1) Oncogenes take care of division. 2) Tumor suppressor genes give direction to cells when division is not necessary. 3) Suicide genes command the cells to kill themselves if something wrong is detected in the cells. and 4) DNA-repair genes that are responsible for the repair of damaged DNA. If any of these key types of cell are unable to do their task properly, cancer begins.
- Carcinogens: These are substances that damage DNA and aid cancer. Tobacco, asbestos, arsenic and radiation such as gamma rays and X-rays, etc. are all carcinogens. On exposure to these substances, free radicals are formed and they try to steal electrons from molecules,thereby affecting the ability of the cells to function normally. The inability of the cells to perform their functions normally eventually leads to cancer.
- Inheriting the cancer genes: Cancer genes can also be inherited.. It is possible for a person to be born with a genetic mutation that makes them more susceptible to developing cancer in later life.
- Other factors: With age, there is an increased chance of developing cancer. Conditions that decrease the immunity of the body, like HIV, also increase the chances of cancer. Various viruses are also known to be linked to cancer. They include the human papillomavirus, which causes cervical cancer, hepatitis B and C known to cause liver cancer, and many other such viruses.
Classifications of Cancer
Cancer is generally broadly classified into five categories:
- Carcinomas: Affected cells in this category cover the internal and external parts of the body. Lung cancer, colon cancer, breast cancer, etc. fall into this category.
- Sarcomas: Affected cells in this category belong to the bone, cartilage, fat, muscles or other connective tissues.
- Lymphomas: These cancers start at the lymph node and immune system tissues.
- Leukemias: They begin in the bone marrow and spread in the blood stream.
- Adenomas: They start in glands like the thyroid, pituitary, adrenal and other glandular tissues.
Symptoms of Cancer
Cancer symptoms vary and depend on the location of the cancer. In the case of skin cancer, changes in warts and moles on the skin are noted. In breast cancer, a lump can be felt in the breast. In certain oral cancers, white patches or spots on the tongue can be seen.
Some cancer symptoms can be mistaken for some other disease or conditions. For example, colon cancer is characterized by constipation, diarrhea and changes in stool size. In the case of prostate cancer, abnormal urination tendencies are seen. In liver cancer, yellowing of the eyes and skin is observed.
Some symptoms that are common in cancer but can be mistaken for other illnesses include fever, fatigue, excessive sweating, anemia, cough, shortness of breath, headaches, sudden unexplained weight loss, etc. In many cases, cancer symptoms are not physically detectable.
How is Cancer Diagnosed?
The sooner a cancer is detected, the greater the chances that it can be treated effectively. Doctors generally examine all the symptoms and use various techniques to confirm the diagnosis. X-rays, CT scans, MRI scans ultrasound scans, etc. are used to detect any abnormal lump or tumor. In many cases endoscopy is also conducted to find any abnormalities inside the body. The most accurate and absolute way of diagnosing cancer is biopsy. In this process, cells are extracted from the body and are then examined under a microscope for abnormalities.
After performing all suitable tests, a diagnosis is finally made. Doctors evaluate the results and determine to what extent the cancer has spread. Depending on the stage of the cancer, treatment options are sorted out.
How is cancer treated?
There is no single treatment process for cancer; it largely depends on the type of cancer that is being treated and its stage. The age, health and other personal characteristics are also taken into account while determining the ideal treatment process. Usually, the cancer treatment is a combination of palliative care and various therapies. The most common types of treatment are: surgery, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, radiation, gene therapy, etc.
Surgery: If the cancer has not spread, then surgery is the ideal way of removing the cancerous cells from the body.
Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy makes use of chemicals to interfere with the abnormal cell division process and destroy them. This treatment is administered in cycles to ensure that the body has the time to heal between doses.
Radiation: This treatment process is also known as radiotherapy. It works by focusing high-energy rays on the cancer cells thereby destroying them. It is also often used to shrink a cancerous tumor or lump.
Gene therapy: This type of treatment is still in its evolutionary stage. It works with the goal of replacing damaged genes with genes that work towards addressing the cause of cancer.
Immunotherapy: In this kind of treatment, the immune system of the body is strengthened to improve its cancer fighting abilities. It is a relatively new way of treatment but has shown promising results.
How can cancer be prevented?
As the old adage goes, ‘prevention is better than cure’. It holds good for cancer as well. There are types of cancer, which are linked to certain human behaviors. Smoking cigarettes, chewing tobacco and drinking excessive alcohol are known to be linked with lung, throat, mouth and liver cancer. If one chooses to avoid them, the chances of such cancers can be significantly reduced.
Skin cancer is often caused due to over exposure to the sun’s harmful rays. By staying in shade and by protecting your skin with sunscreen lotions and suitable clothing you can avoid the disease. However, little or no sun exposure can lead to Vitamin D3 deficiency which can lead to other cancers. You might consider limited unprotected sun exposure and Vitamin D3 supplementation.
Research shows that diet also plays an important role in cancer prevention. A diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, fiber and whole grains and that is low in fat is recommended to keep cancer at bay. Along with all of this, a stress-controlled lifestyle is also important. Certain cancers that are associated with viruses can be prevented by getting proper vaccinations.
As was said earlier, the sooner cancer symptoms are detected, the better is the chance of effective treatment. So one should self-examine and undergo medical tests from time to time to help rule out cancer diagnosis.
According to research, the majority of cancer related deaths are linked to lifestyle choices like smoking, drinking, a sedentary lifestyle and junk food. An anti-cancer lifestyle includes limiting unhealthy food types along with getting into a regular exercise routine. Here is some information about diet that can help minimize your chances of getting cancer.
You can eat plant-based foods such as:
Moreover, less processed food contains more nutrients instead of ones that have been altered by cooking, baking or peeling. So, instead of having orange juice, have an orange. A plate that is composed of more than 75% of whole grains, vegetables and fruits and less than 25% of animal products is ideal.
Plant based food also increases the fiber content in your diet. Fiber or roughage plays an important role in cleansing your gut and getting rid of compounds that may cause cancer.
*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.
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