Cancer Basics, an Introduction

This blog is the first of two narratives on the subject of cancer. Because cancer is the second-leading cause of death in the United States today, it seems to be appropriate to discuss this disease, within the newest and most current information.

Cancer was identified in the 1960s as a family of diseases which remains true today, although it is not a “one size fits all” application of information. The Mayo Clinic website on cancer describes this as “any one of a large number of diseases characterized by the development of abnormal cells that divide uncontrollably and have the ability to infiltrate and destroy normal body tissue. Cancer often has the ability to spread throughout the body.” Cancer causes changes (mutations) in the DNA of cells, which prompt the workings of the cells to reproduce rapidly to a new formulation of genes, thus increasing production of abnormal cells and tissue. Gene mutations can be something a person is born with, although it is a very small percentage of cancers that result from such genetic patterns. A more common cause of changes in cell life is in response to a number of life cireumstances including factors such as exposure to chemicals, smoking (primary or secondary), radiation, viruses, obesity, lack of exercise, and chronic inflammation.

Perhaps you have heard the adage “listen to your body.” There are general physical signs and symptoms that can occur in our bodies that can prompt someone to seek the evaluation of a medical doctor, for the purpose of “ruling out” or “ruling in” a disease process. Common symptoms that warrant a health exam include:

  • Fatigue that is constant
  • Lump or thickening of the skin or in other locations of the body
  • Weight loss that is unintended
  • Changes in bowel or bladder habits
  • Persistent cough and/or on-going trouble breathing
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Hoarseness
  • Persistent indigestion
  • Persistent, unexplained fevers or night sweats
  • Unexplained bleeding

While a physician has an expert level of knowledge and experience about causes of cancer, the majority of cancers occur in people who have no known risk factors. A thorough health history assists in diagnosing cancer, or can be a basis for ruling out the disease. It is an important part of diagnosis to consider:

  • Your age: some cancers take years, even decades, to develop, or can occur at a young age.
  • Your habits: excessive sun exposure, smoking, excessive use of alcohol, obesity, unsafe sex, intense sun exposure.
  • Your family history: keep in mind that only a small number of cancer diseases are actually inherited.
  • Your environment: again this refers to smoking, air pollution, chemical exposure.
  • Your health conditions: chronic indigestion can increase your risk of developing colorectal cancer, for example.

There is variation in type of cancer, its severity and extent, the prognosis and options for treatment. Some of these characteristics will be presented in the next blog entry.