Overview of Cancer
All the different cells in our bodies have their own life cycles of birth, growth, and death as a natural part of our physiology. The cells that make up our skin, for example, are constantly diving and then drying up as they reach the outer layers, dying and being shed from the body. Cells may also be programmed to die if they become too damaged, either due to physical trauma or internal damages to the DNA. This is to help them from behaving abnormally and causing problems for the cells around them or the tissues that they are a part of. The processes that control these cell divisions and cell life cycles are very carefully controlled through tightly regulated genes within the cells. Should something happen to any of these processes to cause uncontrolled cell division, they will continue to divide. This process is known as cancerous transformation, and these abnormal cells may form stationary masses or flow freely throughout the body, interfering with our organs.
Symptoms of Cancer
Uncontrolled cell growth sometimes results in a mass of quickly dividing cells in the area where the transformation takes place. These can form the lumps known as tumors which may either be visible or located through touch. If the cancer is remaining confined to this one place in the body and is not invading the surrounding tissues it is considered benign. In some cases, however, the cancerous cells promote formation of blood vessels into the tumor cells in a process known as angiogenesis. By bringing in nutrients and oxygen through these blood vessels, it allows for more cancerous cell growth and invasion of neighboring tissues. If the cancer becomes malignant in this fashion, the cells may break away, or metastasize, allowing them to circulate in the body and spread the cancer.
Specific symptoms of cancer depend on several factors, including which tissues contain the cells that have undergone cancerous transformation, but can generally be divided into three categories based on how far the cancer has progressed.
Some cancers have localized symptoms, such as a unusual lump or tumor that may seem to appear suddenly. Some cancers can also cause bleeding (possibly hemorrhaging) or ulcerous lesions. As the tumor enlarges, it can also put pressure on the surrounding tissues, to various effects. Tumors in the brain tissues, for example, may induce sudden personality changes, for example.
If the cancer metastasizes, the patient may develop swollen lymph nodes, bone pain, chronic cough, an enlarged liver, and neurological problems. As the cancer continues to spread, there may also be fatigue, excessive sweating (particularly during sleep), weight loss, anemia, and poor appetite.
Risks of Cancer
While cancer takes many lives each year, the prognosis for some cancers is quite good thanks to medical advances in cancer treatments. Early detection of cancers can improve the prognosis, as it may help the doctors remove it or limit its spread. As a tumor forms, the immediate risk is to the tissues surrounding the cancer cells, potentially interfering with their function. Should the cancer continue to spread, it can have a tremendous impact on a person’s overall physical health and quality of life.
Causes of Cancer
Some cancers are caused by mutations to the cells that transform them. Carcinogens, for example, are a category of substances known to increase the incidence of cancer if cells are exposed to them. Some notable carcinogens include asbestos fibers and cigarette smoke. Some of these carcinogens actually cause permanent mutations to the DNA in the cells they transform, causing them to become cancerous. These can be more specifically referred to as mutagens. Ultraviolet light exposure can also cause mutations that lead to cancer. If a person is exposed to too much UV light from the sun while outdoors, for example, they may develop skin cancers due to the damaging effects of these rays on the DNA in their cells.
There are some carcinogens that increase risk of cancer without causing specific mutations, however, such as alcohol. In these cases, it may be that the substances themselves stimulate abnormal cell growth. Hormone Imbalances that cause cancer are thought to have much the same effect. Hormones have a wide variety of effects in the body, including some that involve regulation of cell growth. Too much of the hormone estrogen, for example, has been linked to development of breast and endometrial cancers.
Certain cancers can also be caused by bacterial and viral infections. Chronic stomach infections with the bacteria Helicobacter pylori, for example, can lead to inflammation of the stomach lining, ulcers, and cancerous lesions. Many different viruses have been implicated in the cancerous transformation of cells, as well, including human papillomavirus (HPV), hepatitis B and C viruses, human T-lymphotrophic virus, and Epstein-Barr virus. Part of the life cycle of many viruses involves inserting the viral DNA into the host cell and using the host’s DNA replication and protein synthesis machineries to make new virus particles. During this process, the viral DNA may change the way the human DNA in the cell is regulated. In other cases, the viral DNA may actually insert itself into the human DNA, where it can continue to replicate more stably, and perhaps turn on human genes that are normally not expressed. Some of these genes, called proto-oncogenes, can cause cancer if they are turned on.
Some cancers are caused by immune dysfunction, such as Kaposi’s sarcoma, a skin cancer that develops primarily in patients that have HIV. Lymphomas are cancers arising in the lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell that helps the body fight off infections. In these types of cancers, the cancerous cells travel freely through the body rather than forming tumors, allowing them to spread to all the lymph nodes quite rapidly.
Genetic variations and mutations can also increase a person’s likelihood of developing cancer. Research scientists have been able to identify specific genes that appear to actively suppress the formation of tumors. If a person inherits a version of any of these genes that does not suppress tumors as well, they may be at risk for developing cancer just by virtue of heredity. Specific genes have been identified for their involvement in breast cancer, ovarian cancer, retinoblastoma (eye), colon cancer, certain types of brain tumors, and many others.
Conventional Treatment of Cancer
The treatment of a cancer depends on where tumors are located, whether the cancerous growth is contained (or becoming invasive or spreading), and the overall physical health of the patient. Many times this is a balancing act between eliminating the cancer and keeping the patient strong enough to recover fully.
Cancerous tumors, even if they appear to be benign, may be removed surgically to avoid the risk of becoming invasive and spreading throughout the body. Even if the edges of the removed tissues appear to be clear of any signs of metastasis, it is a good idea for frequent follow-ups to be performed to ensure that cancerous growths are not developing near the removed tissues or elsewhere in the body. In some cases, much of the surrounding tissues will also be removed to reduce the risk of further cancers. Some women elect to undergo mastectomies for breast cancer, for example, to avoid a recurrence of tumor growth.
Radiation therapy can also help assist in the killing and of cancer cells. By exposing these cells to doses of ionizing radiation, their DNA is destroyed such that they can no longer divide. Radiation treatment may also shrink larger tumors to aid in safe removal. Many times, the surrounding tissues are also damaged by these treatments, but are usually capable of recovering. Chemotherapy is another common treatment, in which patients take drugs that specifically target rapidly dividing cells. In addition to killing cancer cells, chemotherapy treatments will also target other rapidly dividing cells, such as those in the hair follicles and stomach lining. These healthy cells will eventually replace themselves, though their loss causes some of the side effects common to chemotherapy (hair loss, vomiting, diarrhea, etc).
Some tumors are also hormone sensitive, so hormone therapies may prove effective in controlling tumor growth. Breast cancers and prostate cancers, for example, may be treated in part by blocking estrogen or testosterone. There are also drugs designed to target angiogenesis, the process by which tumors redirect blood vessels to help nourish tumor growth.
Patients Medical’s Treatment of Cancer
In addition to treating the symptoms of cancers, we firmly believe in helping to improve the quality of life of patients undergoing these treatments. To complement any surgeries or drug treatments that may be recommended, our integrative physicians can also help devise therapies that may make them more comfortable and also improve your prognosis. Some of these include herbal supplements, massage therapies, and dietary supplements that may help keep your nutritional levels high as you recover.
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