The History Of Cancer As A Known Disease, The Genetics Of Cancer, Types Of Cancers
Cancer is not just one disease, but a large group of almost 100 diseases. Its two main characteristics are uncontrolled growth of the cells in the human body and the ability of these cells to migrate from the original site and spread to distant sites. If the spread is not controlled, cancer can result in death.
One out of every four deaths in the United States is from cancer. It is second only to heart disease as a cause of death in the states. About 1.2 million Americans are expected to be diagnosed with cancer in 1998, of which, more than 500,000 are expected to die.
Cancer can attack anyone. Since the occurrence of cancer increases as individuals age, most of the cases are seen in adults, middle-aged or older. The most common cancers are skin cancer, lung cancer, colon cancer, breast cancer (in women), and prostate cancer (in men). In addition, cancer of the kidneys, ovaries, uterus, pancreas, bladder, rectum, and blood and lymph node cancer (leukemia and lymphomas) are also included among the 12 major cancers that affect most Americans.
Eighty to ninety percent of the lung cancer cases occur in smokers. Smoking has also been shown to be a contributory factor in cancers of upper respiratory tract, esophagus, larynx, bladder, pancreas, and probably liver, stomach, and kidney as well. Recently, scientists have also shown that second-hand smoke (or passive smoking) can increase one's risk of developing cancer.
Excessive consumption of alcohol is a risk factor in certain cancers, such as liver cancer. Alcohol, in combination with tobacco, significantly increases the chances that an individual will develop mouth, pharynx, larynx, and esophageal cancers.
Thirty five percent of all cancers are due to dietary causes. Excessive intake of fat leading to obesity has been associated with cancers of the breast, colon, rectum, pancreas, prostate, gall bladder, ovaries, and uterus.
Sexual and reproductive behavior
The human papilloma virus, which is sexually transmitted has been shown to cause cancer of the cervix. Having too many sex partners and becoming sexually active early has been shown to increase one's chances of contracting this disease. In addition, it has also been shown that women who do not have children or have children late in life, have an increased risk for both ovarian and breast cancer.
In the later decades of the twentieth century, scientists have obtained evidence to show that approximately 15% of the world's cancer deaths can be traced to viruses, bacteria, or parasites. The most common cancer-causing pathogens and the cancers associated with them are shown in table form.
Certain cancers like breast, colon, ovarian and uterine cancer, recur generation after generation in some families. A few cancers, such as the eye cancer "retinoblastoma," a type of colon cancer, and a type of breast cancer known as "early-onset breast cancer," have been shown to be linked to certain genes that can be tracked within a family. It is therefore possible that inheriting particular genes makes a person susceptible to certain cancers.
There is evidence to prove that certain occupational hazards account for 4% of all cancer deaths. For example, asbestos workers have an increased incidence of lung cancer. Similarly, a higher likelihood of getting bladder cancer is associated with dye, rubber and gas workers; skin and lung cancer with smelters, gold miners, and arsenic workers; leukemia with glue and varnish workers; liver cancer with PVC manufacturers; and lung, bone, and bone marrow cancer with radiologists and uranium miners.
Radiation is believed to cause 1-2% of all cancer deaths. Ultra-violet radiation from the sun accounts for a majority of melanoma deaths. Other sources of radiation are x rays, radon gas, and ionizing radiation from nuclear material.
Several studies have shown that there is a well-established link between asbestos and cancer. Chlorination of water may account for a small rise in cancer risk. However, the main danger from pollution occurs when dangerous chemicals from the industries escape into the surrounding environment. It has been estimated that 1% of cancer deaths are due to air, land and water pollution.
Cancer is a progressive disease, and goes through several stages. Each stage may produce a number of symptoms. Some symptoms are produced early and may occur due to a tumor that is growing within an organ or a gland. As the tumor grows, it may press on the nearby nerves, organs and blood vessels. This causes pain and some pressure which may be the earliest warning signs of cancer.
Despite the fact that there are several hundred different types of cancers, producing very different symptoms, the ACS has established the following seven symptoms as possible warning signals of cancer:
- changes in the size, color, or shape of a wart or a mole
- a sore that does not heal
- persistent cough, hoarseness, or sore throat
- a lump or thickening in the breast or elsewhere
- unusual bleeding or discharge
- chronic indigestion or difficulty in swallowing
- any change in bowel or bladder habits.
Many other diseases, besides cancer, could produce the same symptoms. However, it is important to have these symptoms checked, as soon as possible, especially if they linger. The earlier a cancer is diagnosed and treated, the better the chance of it being cured. Many cancers such as breast cancer may not have any early symptoms. Therefore, it is important to undergo routine screening tests such as breast self-exams and mammograms.
Surgery is the removal of a visible tumor and is the most frequently used cancer treatment. It is most effective when a cancer is small and confined to one area of the body.
Surgery can be used for many purposes.
- Treatment: Treatment of cancer by surgery involves removal of the tumor to cure the disease. This is typically done when the cancer is localized to a discrete area. Along with the cancer, some part of the normal surrounding tissue is also removed to ensure that no cancer cells remain in the area. Since cancer usually spreads via the lymphatic system, adjoining lymph nodes may be examined and sometimes they are removed as well.
- Preventive surgery: Preventive or prophylactic surgery involves removal of an abnormal looking area that is likely to become malignant over time. For example, about 40% of the people with a colon disease known as ulcerative colitis, ultimately die of colon cancer. Rather than live with the fear of developing colon cancer, these people may choose to have their colons removed and reduce the risk significantly.
- Diagnostic purposes: The most definitive tool for diagnosing cancer is a biopsy. Sometimes a biopsy can be performed by inserting a needle through the skin. However, at other times, the only way to obtain some tissue sample for biopsy, is by performing a surgical operation.
- Cytoreductive surgery: is a procedure where the doctor removes as much of the cancer as possible, and then treats the remaining with radiation therapy or chemotherapy or both.
- Palliative surgery: is aimed at curing the symptoms, not the cancer. Usually, in such cases, the tumor is so large or has spread so much, that removing the entire tumor is not an option. For example, a tumor in the abdomen may be so large, that it may press on and block a portion of the intestine, interfering with digestion and causing pain and vomiting. "Debulking surgery" may remove a part of the blockage and relieve the symptoms. In tumors that are dependent on hormones, removal of the organs that secrete the hormones is an option. For example, in prostate cancer, the release of testosterone by the testicles stimulates the growth of cancerous cells. Hence, a man may undergo an "orchiectomy" (removal of testicles) to slow the progress of the disease. Similarly, in a type of aggressive breast cancer, removal of the ovaries (oophorectomy) will stop the synthesis of hormones from the ovaries and slow the progression of the cancer.
Radiation kills cells. Radiation is used alone in cases where a tumor is unsuitable for surgery. More often, it is used in conjunction with surgery and chemotherapy. Radiation can be either external or internal. In the external form, the radiation is aimed at the tumor from outside the body. In internal radiation (also known as brachytherapy), a radioactive substance, in the form of pellets or liquid is placed at the cancerous site by means of a pill, injection, or insertion in a sealed container.
Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to more specifically kill cancer cells. It destroys the hard-to-detect cancer cells that have spread and are circulating in the body. Chemotherapeutic drugs can be taken either orally (by mouth) or intravenously, and may be given alone or in conjunction with surgery, radiation, or both.
When chemotherapy is used before surgery or radiation, it is known as primary chemotherapy or "neoadjuvant chemotherapy." An advantage of neoadjuvant chemotherapy is that since the cancer cells have not been exposed to anti-cancer drugs, they are especially vulnerable. It can therefore be used effectively to reduce the size of the tumor for surgery or target it for radiation. However, the toxic effects of neoadjuvant chemotherapy are severe. In addition, it may make the body less tolerant to the side effects of other treatments that follow such as radiation therapy. The more common use of chemotherapy is adjuvant therapy, which is given to enhance the effectiveness of other treatments For example, after surgery, adjuvant chemotherapy is given to destroy any cancerous cells that still remain in the body.
Immunotherapy uses the body's own immune system to destroy cancer cells. This form of treatment is being intensively studied in clinical trials and is not yet widely available to most cancer patients. The various immunological agents being tested include substances produced by the body (such as the interferons, interleukins, and growth factors), monoclonal antibodies, and vaccines. Unlike traditional vaccines, cancer vaccines do not prevent cancer. Instead, they are designed to treat people who already have the disease. Cancer vaccines work by boosting the body's immune system and training the immune cells to specifically destroy cancer cells.
Hormone therapy is standard treatment for some types of cancers that are hormone-dependent and grow faster in the presence of particular hormones. These include cancer of the prostate, breast, and uterus. Hormone therapy involves blocking the production or action of these hormones. As a result the growth of the tumor slows down and survival may be extended for several months or years.
Bone marrow transplantation
The bone marrow is the tissue within the bone cavities that contains blood-forming cells. Healthy bone marrow tissue constantly replenishes the blood supply and is essential to life. Sometimes, the amount of drugs or radiation needed to destroy cancer cells also destroys bone marrow. Replacing the bone marrow with healthy cells counteracts this adverse effect. A bone marrow transplant is the removal of marrow from one person and the transplant of the blood-forming cells either to the same person or to some one else. Bone-marrow transplantation, while not a therapy in itself, is often used to "res cue" a patient, by allowing those with cancer to undergo very aggressive therapy.
Many different specialists generally work together as a team to treat cancer patients. An oncologist is a physician who specializes in cancer care. The oncologist provides chemotherapy, hormone therapy, and any other non-surgical treatment that does not involve radiation. The oncologist often serves as the primary physician and co-ordinates the patient's treatment plan.
The radiation oncologist specializes in using radiation to treat cancer, while the surgical oncologist performs the operations needed to diagnose or treat cancer. Gynecologist-oncologists and pediatric-oncologists, as their titles suggest, are physicians involved with treating women's and children's cancers respectively. Many other specialists may also be involved in the care of a cancer patient. For example, radiologists specialize in the use of x rays, ultrasounds, computed tomography scans (CT scans), MRI imaging, and other techniques that are used to diagnose cancer. Hematologists specialize in disorders of the blood and are consulted in case of blood cancers and bone marrow cancers. The samples that are removed for biopsy are sent to a laboratory, where a pathologist examines them to determine the type of cancer and extent of the disease. Only some of the specialists who are involved with cancer care have been mentioned above. There are many other specialties, and virtually any type of medical or surgical specialist may become involved with care of the cancer patient should it become necessary.
There are a multitude of alternative treatments available to help the person with cancer. They can be used in conjunction with, or separate from, surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy. Alternative treatment of cancer is a complicated arena and a trained health practitioner should be consulted.
The effectiveness of complementary therapies such as acupuncture in alleviating cancer pain has not been clinically proven. Bodywork therapies such as massage and reflexology ease muscle tension and may alleviate the side effects such as nausea and vomiting. Homeopathy and herbal remedies used in Chinese traditional herbal medicine have also been reported to alleviate some of the side effects of radiation and chemotherapy and are being recommended by many doctors.
Certain foods including many vegetables, fruits, and grains are believed to offer protection against various cancers. However, isolation of the individual constituent of vegetables and fruits that are anti-cancer agents has proven difficult. In laboratory studies, vitamins such as A, C and E, as well as compounds such as isothiocyanates and dithiolthiones found in broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage, and beta-carotene found in carrots have been shown to protect against cancer. Studies have shown that eating a diet rich in fiber as found in fruits and vegetables reduces the risk of colon cancer. Exercise and a low fat diet help control weight and reduce the risk of endometrial, breast, and colon cancer.
Certain drugs, which are currently being used for treatment, could also be suitable for prevention. For example, the drug tamoxifen (Nolvadex), that has been very effective against breast cancer, is currently being tested by the National Cancer Institute, for its ability to prevent cancer. Similarly, retinoids derived from vitamin A are being tested for their ability to slow the progression or prevent head and neck cancers. Certain studies have suggested that cancer incidence is lower in areas where soil and foods are rich in the mineral selenium. More trials are needed to explain these intriguing connections.
- Cancer - The History Of Cancer As A Known Disease
- Cancer - The Genetics Of Cancer
- Cancer - Types Of Cancers
- Cancer - Causes And Symptoms
- Cancer - Diagnosis
- Cancer - Treatment
- Cancer - Prognosis
- Cancer - Prevention
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