Cancer is a class of diseases characterized by uncontrolled division of cells and the ability of these cells to invade other tissues, either by direct growth into adjacent tissue (invasion) or by implantation into distant sites (metastasis). This unregulated growth is caused by damage to DNA, resulting in mutations to genes that control cell division. Several mutations may be required to transform a normal cell into a malignant cell. These mutations are often caused by chemicals or physical agents called carcinogens. Some mutations occur spontaneously, or they can be inherited (germ line mutations.)
Cancer can cause many different symptoms, depending on the site and character of the malignancy and whether there is metastasis. Cancer may be painless. A definitive diagnosis usually requires the histologic examination of tissue by a pathologist. This tissue is obtained by biopsy or surgery. Once diagnosed, cancer is usually treated with surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation.
If untreated, cancers may eventually cause death. Cancer is mainly a disease of later years, and is one of the leading causes of death in developed countries. Most cancers can be treated and many cured, especially if treatment begins early.
The following closely related terms may be used to designate abnormal growths:
Neoplasia and neoplasm are the accurate, scientific names for this group of diseases as defined in the first paragraph above. This group contains a large number of different diseases; the usual classification is listed below. Neoplasms can be benign or malignant.
Cancer is a widely used word that is usually understood as synonymous with malignant neoplasm. Occasionally, it is used instead of carcinoma, a sub-group of malignant neoplasms. Because of its overwhelming popularity relative to 'neoplasia', it is used frequently instead of 'neoplasia', even by scientists and physicians, especially when discussing neoplastic diseases as a group.
Tumor in medical language simply means swelling or lump, either neoplastic, inflammatory or other. In common language, however, it is synonymous with 'neoplasm', either benign or malignant. This is inaccurate since some neoplasms usually do not form tumors, for example leukemia or carcinoma in situ.
Classification and Nomenclature
Cancers are classified by the type of cells that resemble the tumor and thereby the tissue is presumed to be the origin of the tumor. The following general categories are usually accepted:
Carcinoma: Malignant tumors derived from epithelial cells. This group represent the most common cancers, including the common forms of breast, prostate, lung and colon cancer.
Lymphoma and Leukemia: malignant tumors derived from blood and bone marrow cells.
Sarcoma: Malignant tumors derived from connective tissue, or mesenchymal cells.
Mesothelioma: tumors derived from the mesothelial cells lining the peritoneum and the pleura.
Glioma: tumors derived from brain cells.
Germ Cell Tumors: tumors derived from germ cells, normally found in the testicle and ovary.
Choriocarcinoma: malignant tumors derived from the placenta
In males most common tumors are prostate cancer, lung cancer, colorectal cancer, and bladder cancer. In females most common tumors are breast cancer, lung cancer, colorectal cancer, endometrial cancer. Cancer can also occur in young children and adolescents, but it is rare. The age of peak incidence of cancer in children occurs during the first year of life. Leukemia (usually ALL) is the most common infant malignancy (30%), followed by the central nervous system cancers and neuroblastoma. The remainder consists of Wilms' tumor, lymphomas, rhabdomyosarcoma (arising from muscle), retinoblastoma, osteosarcoma and Ewing's sarcoma.
Origins of Cancer
Cell division (proliferation) is a physiological process that occurs in almost all tissues and under many circumstances. Normally the balance between proliferation and cell death is tightly regulated to ensure the integrity of organs and tissues. Mutations in DNA that lead to cancer disrupt these orderly processes. The uncontrolled and often rapid proliferation of cells can lead to either a benign tumor or a malignant tumor (cancer). Benign tumors do not spread to other parts of the body or invade other tissues, and they are rarely a threat to life unless they extrinsically compress vital structures. Malignant tumors can invade other organs, spread to distant locations (metastasize) and become life-threatening.
Cancer prevention is defined as active measures to decrease the incidence of cancer. This can be accomplished by avoiding carcinogens or altering their metabolism, pursuing a lifestyle or diet that modifies cancer-causing factors and/or medical intervention (chemoprevention, treatment of premalignant lesions).
Most cancers are initially recognized either because signs or symptoms appear or through screening. Neither of these lead to a definitive diagnosis, which usually requires the opinion of a pathologist.
1. Signs and Symptoms-Roughly, cancer symptoms can be divided into three groups:
Local symptoms: Unusual lumps or swelling (tumor), hemorrhage (bleeding), pain and/or ulceration. Compression of surrounding tissues may cause symptoms such as jaundice.
Symptoms of metastasis (spreading): enlarged lymph nodes, cough and hemoptysis, hepatomegaly (enlarged liver), bone pain, fracture of affected bones and neurological symptoms. Although advanced cancer may cause pain, it is often not the first symptom.
Systemic symptoms: weight loss, poor appetite and cachexia (wasting), excessive sweating (night sweats), anemia and specific paraneoplastic phenomena, i.e. specific conditions that are due to an active cancer, such as thrombosis or hormonal changes.
A cancer may be suspected for a variety of reasons, but the definitive diagnosis of most malignancies must be confirmed by histological examination of the cancerous cells by a pathologist. The tissue diagnosis indicates the type of cell that is proliferating, its histological grade and other features of the tumor. Together, this information is useful to evaluate the prognosis of this patient and choose the best treatment. Cytogenetics and immunohistochemistry may provide information about future behavior of the cancer (prognosis) and best treatment.
Cancer screening is an attempt to detect unsuspected cancers in the population. Screening tests suitable for large numbers of healthy people must be relatively affordable, safe, noninvasive procedures with acceptably low rates of false positive results. If signs of cancer are detected, more definitive and invasive follow up tests are performed to confirm the diagnosis.
Treatment of Cancer
Cancer can be treated by surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, immunotherapy or other methods. The choice of therapy depends upon the location and grade of the tumor and the stage of the disease, as well as the general state of the patient (performance status). A number of experimental cancer treatments are also under development.
In theory, cancers can be cured if entirely removed by surgery, but this is not always possible. When the cancer has metastasized to other sites in the body prior to surgery, complete surgical excision is usually impossible.
Examples of surgical procedures for cancer include mastectomy for breast cancer and prostatectomy for prostate cancer. The goal of the surgery can be either the removal of only the tumor, or the entire organ. A single cancer cell is invisible to the naked eye but can regrow into a new tumor, a process called recurrence.
Chemotherapy is the treatment of cancer with drugs ("anticancer drugs") that can destroy cancer cells. It interferes with cell division in various possible ways, e.g. with the duplication of DNA or the separation of newly formed chromosomes. Most forms of chemotherapy target all rapidly dividing cells and are not specific for cancer cells. Hence, chemotherapy has the potential to harm healthy tissue, especially those tissues that have a high replacement rate (e.g. intestinal lining). These cells usually repair themselves after chemotherapy. Because some drugs work better together than alone, two or more drugs are often given at the same time. This is called "combination chemotherapy"; most chemotherapy regimens are given in a combination.
Immunotherapy is the use of immune mechanisms against tumors. These are used in various forms of cancer, such as breast cancer (trastuzumab/Herceptin®) but also in leukemia. The agents are monoclonal antibodies directed against proteins that are characteristic to the cells of the cancer in question, or cytokines that modulate the immune system's response.
Radiation therapy (also called radiotherapy, X-ray therapy, or irradiation) is the use of ionizing radiation to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. Radiation therapy can be administered externally via external beam radiotherapy (EBRT) or internally via brachytherapy. The effects of radiation therapy are localized and confined to the region being treated. Radiation therapy injures or destroys cells in the area being treated (the "target tissue") by damaging their genetic material, making it impossible for these cells to continue to grow and divide. In addition, they cut off the blood supply to the cancer cells causing them to die in a process called necrosis. Although radiation damages both cancer cells and normal cells, most normal cells can recover from the effects of radiation and function properly. The goal of radiation therapy is to damage as many cancer cells as possible, while limiting harm to nearby healthy tissue. Hence, it is given in many fractions, allowing healthy tissue to recover between fractions.
The growth of nearly all tissues, including cancers, can be accelerated or inhibited by providing or blocking certain hormones. This allows an additional method of treatment for many cancers. Common examples of hormone-sensitive tumors include certain types of breast, prostate, and thyroid cancers. Removing or blocking estrogen, testosterone, or TSH, respectively, is often an important additional treatment.
Complementary and alternative medicine
Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) treatments are the diverse group of medical and health care systems, practices, and products that are not presently considered to be effective by the standards of conventional medicine. Some non-conventional treatment methods are used to "complement" conventional treatment, to provide comfort or lift the spirits of the patient, while others are offered as alternatives to be used instead of conventional treatments in hope of curing the cancer. They include traditional Chinese medicine, megavitamin therapy and many others.
Considerable research effort is now devoted to the development of vaccines (to prevent infection by oncogenic infectious agents, as well as to mount an immune response against cancer-specific epitopes) and to potential venues for gene therapy for individuals with genetic mutations or polymorphisms that put them at high risk of cancer. No cancer vaccines are presently in use, and most of the research is still in its initial stages.
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