Cancer is a condition where ‘abnormal cells’ in our bodies divide and grow uncontrollably. Alternatively termed ‘malignancy’, the typical result of this unrestricted cell growth is the destruction of normal body tissue, tumours (the converse is not true – that is, not all tumors are cancerous), damage to the immune system and various other kinds of impairment. In some kinds of cancer, the body cells grow at a rapid pace, while in others, they multiply slowly.
Cancer is the number one cause of death in the world. According to The WHO (World Health Organization), nearly one in 6 deaths can be attributed to cancer.
Cancer can affect any part of the body, since some types of this diseases have the ability to spread from one part of the body to another via the lympathic system and blood vessels. This is called Metastasis. Metastatic cancer condition tend to be more ‘advanced’ – they are usually harder to treat and considered more fatal.
Healthy cells in our body have a specific ‘life-span’ and come with an ‘expiry date’, so to speak. Their ‘inner signal’ instructs them to die after a certain period of time, so that they can make way for new cells with better capabilities to sustain the body – and the natural cycle of life can continue. Due to mutation in their DNA, cancer cells lack this functionality. Consequently, instead of dying, they keep building up within our system, causing disruption to normal bodily functions and also consuming vital nutrients and oxygen that are meant for the healthier cells.
Mutation is a natural ‘event’ and keeps happening in our body’s cells – but healthy cells have the ability to ‘correct’ it. When that correction doesn’t happen, the ‘process of cancer’ begins. Apart from preventing cells from dying, gene mutation can also cause unwanted cells to grow.
Gene mutations can sometime be inherited, but in most cases, they happen after birth. Both the kinds – inherited and ‘self-generated’ mutation – can ‘team up’ to make one more vulnerable to cancer. For example, a certain kind of mutation that has been passed onto us by our parents may make us more susceptible or ‘disposed’ to cancer (an example of this is when we run a higher risk of cancer than others when exposed to a cancer causing substance, environment or situation), but it still may not have enough ‘powers’ to induce cancer on its own. In such cases, the ‘extra push’ is provided by ‘non-inherited or acquired mutations’ – that is, genetic mutations that happen during our lifetime.
The term ‘cancer’ covers over a hundred, potentially life-threatening, conditions that can affect any part of the human body. Cancers derive their name from the place or region of their origin inside the body. For example, if a cancer begins in the lungs and subsequently moves to the kidney, it will technically still be called ‘Lung cancer’. Broadly, cancer may be categorized in broad categories mentioned below:
This happens to be the most common type of diagnosed cancer. It originates in the skin – or in the tissues lining the organs in our body. Carcinomas originates in the lungs, pancreas, breasts, skin and various other glands and organs.
Relatively less common, this refers to the cancer of the connective tissues and occurs in the bones, cartilage, blood vessels, muscles, fat and other soft or connective tissues that are present in our bodies.
This is cancer of the blood and doesn’t normally produce solid manifestations such as tumors.
This is a term used to denote the cancers of the lymphocytes. Lymphocytes are White Blood Cells (found in the blood, lymph tissues and bone marrow) – they are responsible for the body’s immunity.
This is the name given to the kind of cancer that begins inside the cells that make up the pigmentation (colour) of our skins.
Cancer may be caused by ‘carcinogens’ (a term used substances that cause cancer – for example, the chemical Nicotine that we consume during smoking), virus, environmental agents or heredity. For a majority of cases, however, an onset of cancer is triggered by multiple reasons, and singling out one factor as the ‘cause’ may not be feasible.
Cancer is not always fatal. Some types and certain stages of this ailment are curable – especially if it is brought to the notice of medical professionals early on. One way to stave off the condition could be staying alert to the various ‘Risk Factors’ that brings it on. The probability of success for such preventive measures is still open to research, but in the absence of an official panacea, it is the best one can do.
The Risk Factors for cancer – that is, substances, situations and habits that can increase probabilities of the affliction – can be roughly classified in the following categories:
Factors under this section can be hereditary conditions, certain hormones, gender, age and skin type.
Sunlight (in particular, the UV radiation associated in it) and various kinds of pollution may increases chances of cancer.
Exposure to carcinogens ‘in the workplace’ – such as radioactive materials, tar, metal compounds, plastic chemicals, asbestos fibres and polynuclear hydrocarbons (such as benzopyrene) and radiation (such as X-Rays and soil radon) – are well known Risk Factors.
Smoking, alcohol, consuming certain kinds of food (or food prepared by certain methods such as smoking or barbeque-ing) and higher body weight can significantly raise cancer risk.
Certain kinds of drugs (such as certain antineoplastic agents) or medicines that weaken our immune systems can set off cancer inducing reactions in our cells.
Viruses that influence cell growth, infections that cause inflammation or suppress the immune system, bacteria, parasites and viruses like HIV can lead to cancer as well.
Despite being an ailment that’s as old as mankind, cancer remains a ‘malady’ without a cure – although brisk efforts are on worldwide for a breakthrough. That said, advances in the understanding of cancer have picked up significantly over the last century. Be it diagnosis, treatment or prevention, Oncologists (the term used to refer to specialists of cancer) can now help cancer patients live longer – and healthier – than ever. Regular exercise, healthy lifestyle choices and a wise diet may bring down the risks of cancer.
If one is suspected of having cancer, certain blood and Lab tests may be recommended. Except for Blood Cancer, tests normally cannot fully confirm the presence of the ailment. Tests do have a big role to play, however, in helping healthcare professionals diagnose a ‘cancer condition’ with greater accuracy, and guide treatment better.
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