What is cancer?

Cancer Watch

Whenever I do a presentation I always start my talk with an explanation as to what cancer is. This is because I realized that although cancer is a word that strikes fear into people, many do not really understand what cancer is. To help you understand what cancer is, let’s start at the beginning.

The basic building block of the body is the cell. We have trillions of cells that make up this form we call our body. There are more than 200 different types of cells in the body and each of these cell types are unique having their own job description and appearance.

There is a rhythm to the life of a cell and they multiply a certain number of times before dying. Sometimes, there is a ‘rogue’ cell that decides to challenge the norms and ‘tune out’ the signalling devices that tell them when to multiply and when it is time to die.

By doing this they continue to multiply and do not die. In some circumstances when this sequence occurs, the cells become malignant or to say it a different way cancerous.

Cancer can affect any system, organ or part of the body. Depending on where the cancer originates, different words are used to describe them. Leukemia is the word used to describe cancers of the bloodstream and lymphoma describes cancers of the lymph nodes.

Other common words used to describe cancers are carcinoma which refers to cancers of the internal and external surfaces of the body such as breast, colon, lung and skin. Sarcoma refers to cancers of the supporting tissues of the body such as bone or muscle.

As the rogue cell described above continues to multiply, it will gradually invade and damage the tissue surrounding the original site. Left undetected it will continue to multiply and eventually it will come into contact with a blood or lymph vessel.

These vessels can act as a mode of transport for the cancer cell, which breaks away and enters the vessel and travels to another part of the body in a process known as metastasis. Doctors may say that a person has lung cancer that has metastasized or spread to the brain and this is how it happens.

Cancer therefore is the common name for a number of different diseases that have one thing in common – it originated with a cell that is behaving abnormally; a ‘good’ cell has turned ‘bad’.

Cancer is a disease that in many instances develops over a period of time. It can take as long as 20 years from a single cell begins to behave abnormally before cancer develops.

Cancer is a disease that begins in our bodies. Cancer is not a disease that we can ‘catch’ the way we get the flu and is not transmitted from person to person.

Scientists cannot explain why some people get cancer and others do not. Biological functions such as when persons experience puberty can impact risk, as can gender the aging process and certain inherited genetic mutations.

Despite having uncontrollable risk factors such as these, we can lower our risk of cancer by avoiding tobacco and limiting our exposure to the sun and tobacco products.

Eating well and leading a physically active lifestyle can also lower risk.