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The Basics

The Basics

Commonly asked questions about cancer:

What is cancer?

Cancer occurs when abnormal cells divide uncontrollably and invade and destroy healthy body tissue. If left untreated, cancer can spread its abnormal cells throughout the body.

What causes cancer?

Although several factors can contribute to the likelihood of having cancer, basically cancer is caused by damage to or mutations in your DNA. DNA is like a set of instructions for cells, telling them how to grow and divide. When a mutation occurs, normal cells have the ability to repair the mutation or they simply die. Cancerous cells continue living with this mutation. As a result, they grow and divide in an abnormal fashion.

How does cancer spread?

Cancer begins in the body’s cells, which are constantly dividing and multiplying to replace old damaged cells. If a damaged or mutated cell begins to divide, it eventually forms a malignant or cancerous tumor. Most malignant tumors grow quite rapidly, invading nearby organs and tissues. Cancerous cells can also travel through the bloodstream or lymphatic system to other regions of the body. When cancer spreads from its original site, the process is known as metastasis.

What are the different types of cancer?

All cancers fall into one of four broad categories:
• Carcinomas are tumors that arise in the tissues that line the body’s organs. About 80% of all cancer cases are carcinomas.
• Sarcomas are tumors that originate in bone, muscle, cartilage, fibrous tissue, or fat.
• Leukemia is cancer of the blood or blood-forming organs.
• Lymphomas affect the lymphatic system, a network of vessels and nodes that acts as the body’s filter. The lymphatic system distributes nutrients to blood and tissue, and prevents bacteria from entering the bloodstream. There are over 20 types of lymphoma.

Who gets cancer?

Cancer doesn’t discriminate when it comes to race, sex, or age. Unfortunately, anyone can get cancer. The American Cancer Society (ACS) estimates that half the men and one-third of the women in the United States will develop cancer during their lifetimes. Cancer can strike at any age, although it is most common in people over 50. The types of cancer you are at greatest risk for varies based on your sex, age, where you live, and personal habits such as diet, exercise, and use of tobacco products.

How common is cancer?

Cancer is second only to heart disease as the leading cause of death in the United States. The American Cancer Society estimates that more than 1.3 million Americans will be diagnosed with some form of cancer this year, with approximately half of them occurring in the lung, prostate, breast, colon, and rectum.
The good news is that cancer death rates have been declining in recent years, especially among men, who generally experience higher rates than women. Increased public awareness has resulted in more people getting regular cancer screenings and practicing healthier lifestyles that reduce their risk.

What is prognosis?

Prognosis is a prediction of the future course and outcome of a disease, and an indication of the likelihood of recovery from the disease. However, it is only a prediction. When doctors discuss a patient’s prognosis, they are attempting to project what is likely to occur for that individual patient.
A cancer patient’s prognosis can be affected by many factors, particularly the type of cancer, the stage of the disease and its grade—how closely the cancer resembles normal tissue and how fast the cancer is likely to grow and spread. Other factors that may also affect the prognosis include the patient’s age, general health, and response to treatment. As these factors change over time, a patient’s prognosis is also likely to change.

What effect does age have on being diagnosed with cancer?

Age is the single most important factor for cancer. Cancer is much more likely to occur as a person’s age increases. About 85% of all cancers are diagnosed in persons 50 and older.

What role does family history have in developing cancer?

Family history is an important clue to one’s potential for developing cancer. Accurate genetic tests can determine whether or not a person has a higher risk of developing a particular cancer. While it is helpful to know family history, it’s also important to realize that less than 10% of all cancers are associated with a family history.
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