Understanding Cancer

While we talk of cancer as a single disease, it actually is many diseases that can occur in any part of the body, including the blood and lymph systems. Cancer does not discriminate by age, gender, national origin, socio-economic status or race. We know that smoking, poor diet, lack of exercise or environmental toxins can be culprits in many cases. Yet, other seemingly healthy people who do everything they are supposed to do also can be diagnosed with this disease.

How do cancers grow?

Normally, the body controls cell growth. In a programmed manner, every cell is timed for self-destruction. Then it is replaced by a new cell. This cell death and birth process is called apoptosis. However, sometimes cells fail to turn off. They just keep growing along with new cells until they form a tumor or involve the blood or lymph system.

Some tumors are benign and non-cancerous. But all too often, the diagnosis is cancer, or malignancy. If not found and treated early, malignant cells will spread throughout the body forming metastases or new tumors in other organs. This occurs when cancer cells have survived long enough to detach from their original site such as the breast or colon and travel through the blood or lymph systems to find a home in another area of the body. Most common metastases occur in the lungs, liver, brain or bones.

Cancer is identified by its original site. For example, if cancer has spread from the prostate to the bone, it still is referred to as metastatic prostate cancer. Similarly, if breast cancer reappears in the liver a decade after diagnosis and treatment, it is metastatic breast cancer, not liver cancer.

Initially, cancer is staged to determine how advanced it is. This often, but not always, determines the prognosis. (Because blood cancers or leukemias do not grow tumors, they are not staged this way.) Generally, the lower the number, the better the outcome.

  • Stage 0 – pre-cancer
  • Stage 1 – small tumor localized to the original site
  • Stage 2 – larger tumor that may or may not be in the lymph nodes
  • Stage 3 – larger cancer that is in the lymph nodes
  • Stage 4 – cancer that has spread to another organ from the original site

How do we stop cancer?

Thanks to clinical trials of new therapies, more people than ever before are surviving cancer. For example, there are new treatments in clinical trials trying to restore apoptosis in tumor cells so they will self-destruct as if they are normal. Other new drugs, now approved by the FDA, work to starve cancer cells to death by killing the blood vessels that supply them with nourishment. And as scientists have learned how cancer cells grow, they have developed chemotherapies and biologic agents as well as radiation treatments to attack the cells at various stages of their development.

Under the microscope, some tumor cells will be defined as more aggressive or fast growing than others. They will need a more aggressive course of treatment. Thanks to the Human Genome Project, scientists have decoded our DNA. As they further decode cancers and their protein markers, we are able in some cases to identify tumor tissue by its genetic make-up to help direct the treatment. We currently have several gene tests that indicate likely response to specific drugs. More are on the way.

As treatments continue to improve, some scientists predict cancer may become a chronic illness similar to diabetes. Patients who can’t be cured may take anti-cancer medicines for many years while living fairly normal lives. These people will live with cancer rather than die from it.

Early detection saves lives

Finding and treating cancer early improves a patient’s prognosis. We strongly encourage routine screenings for breast, colon and prostate cancers – three of the most common types of cancer. Once the disease has spread to lymph nodes or other organs, cure is difficult but not impossible.

Cancer cells are smart. Their goal is to take over and destroy the human body.

Doctors and scientists are smarter. Our goal is to kill these invaders.

With the newest chemotherapies, biological agents, radiation and surgery, we often use combinations of treatments to stop this out-of-control growth at all levels of its development.

And we are meeting new successes every day.