By far, cancer is the most feared of all disease. Taunting humanity with the threat of a slow, painful death, it is often first disease people think they have when they experience pain or feel a lump in their bodies, and the last they want to talk about. Going to the doctor, patients wait with bated breath for the phone call that tells them, “yes or no”. That one phone call either brings tremendous relief, exhilaration and an appreciation for life or it brings shock and despair. While cancer is a devastating disease, the likelihood of dying of cancer is much less than dying from cardiovascular disease (heart attacks and strokes). Cardiovascular disease remains the number one killer and is responsible for three times as many deaths as all cancers combined. Still, approximately one in five people will develop some form of malignant cancer at some time in their life.
What is Cancer?
Cancer is a proliferation of cells in the body which undergo unregulated growth. These cells often spread by seeding themselves throughout the body. Typically growing in the form of tumors, new tumors emerge as cells take root and grow in different parts of the body. Death occurs when the body’s life support functions are compromised due to the cellular damage.
When cancer is talked about, what is meant is a malignant tumor. A malignant tumor is one with the tendency to grow and invade surrounding tissues. Benign tumors, while still cancerous, pose a lesser threat; they are encapsulated and thus less likely to spread. Often, they can be removed surgically with no additional treatment required. Metastatic tumors are malignancies which have already spread and are generally the most dangerous.
Determining the Prognosis
The prognosis for a cancer patient decreases significantly with metastasis. This is the main reason the medical profession encourages routine tests for early detection. A patient’s prognosis also decreases with the extent of metastasis: the more sites, the less likely is recovery. Another factor in the prognosis is the exact location of the tumor. A tumor located in a vital organ or near a vital function of the body is more difficult to treat. Finally, the type of cell involved in the cancer can indicate how aggressive the cancer will tend to be.
Causes of Cancer
While most people will never develop cancer, every body produces cancerous cells. Every day, even in healthy people, malignant cells are formed and circulate. In a normal, healthy body, these cells are destroyed by the body’s immune system. In patients who develop cancer, something has compromised the body’s ability to effectively deal with these cells.
Genetics: The cause of cancer is complex with many contributing factors. One factor is genetic. The body has certain genes called “Oncogenes.” Oncogenes are mutated genes which regulate cell growth. Proteins in these genes signal the cell to divide when it is not suppose to. Exposure to environmental carcinogens and viruses are responsible for converting regular genes to “Oncogenes.” Our bodies are designed to deal with this threat. Genes called “Tumor repressor genes” normally suppress or regulate growth. Mutations, however, can cause these genes to fail and unrestricted growth occurs. Chromosomal abnormalities have been linked to a large number of cancers including leukemia and lymphoma.
Viruses: Viruses appear to play an important role in the onset of cancer. A virus is a strand of genetic material that is able to insert itself into the DNA of its host, replicate, and thereby alter the functions of the host. While often the body’s defenses can rid itself of the aggressive intruder, at other times the intruder imbeds itself deep inside the DNA and the body appears defenseless against it. By altering the body’s DNA, these mutations can be passed down from generation to generation. Viruses are the closest physical evidence to support something akin to the idea of possession. Common viruses known to cause cancer include HPV (Human Pappilloma Virus) , CMV (Cytomegalo Virus), EBV (Epstein Barr Virus) and Hepatitis B. In addition, any pathogen that causes chronic inflammation increases the risk of cancer.
Environment: Environmental contamination is often blamed for causing cancer. Indeed, environmental contaminants have been proven to increase cancer risk. Chemical carcinogens cause cells to mutate through a series of stages. These stages of mutations are often dependent upon contact with ordinary chemicals which by themselves are not a threat but when combined with a carcinogen triggers mutation. These chemicals are called “co- carcinogens.” The list of common chemicals known to cause cancer is very long and include many pesticides, diesel exhaust, lead based paint fumes, formaldehyde and a variety of hair dyes.
Other Factors: In addition, ultraviolet light, radiation, nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons testing and the use of immunosuppressive drugs all are important cancer risk factors. A history of autoimmune disease also places one at higher risk.