About Cancer

Cancer is a complex group of diseases with many possible causes. While there are more than 100 types of cancer, they all start when cells in a particular part of the body begin to grow out of control. Untreated cancers can cause serious illness and even death.

The body is made up of hundreds of millions of living cells. Normal body cells grow, divide, and die in an orderly fashion. During the early stages of a person’s life, normal cells divide faster to allow the person to grow. After the person becomes an adult, most cells divide only to replace worn-out or dying cells or to repair injuries.
Cancer starts when cells in a part of the body start to grow out of control. There are many kinds of cancer, but they all start because of out-of-control growth of abnormal cells.

Cancer cell growth is different from normal cell growth. Instead of dying, cancer cells continue to grow and form new, abnormal cells. Cancer cells can also invade (grow into) other tissues, something that normal cells cannot do. Growing out of control and invading other tissues are what makes the cell a cancer cell.

To learn more about the different types of cancer, click here.
Cells become cancer cells because of damage to DNA. DNA is in every cell and directs all its actions. In a normal cell, when DNA gets damaged the cell either repairs the damage or the cell dies. In cancer cells, the damaged DNA is not repaired, but the cell doesn’t die as it should. Instead, this cell goes on making new cells that the body does not need. These new cells will all have the same damaged DNA as the first cell does.

Cancer can be treated in four ways:

  • Surgery
  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiation therapy
  • Biological therapy

Depending on the type of cancer a person has, doctors can use one form of treatment or they could use a combination of treatments. To learn more about treatments, click here

Side Effects of Cancer Treatment

The type of treatment a person gets depends on the type and stage of the cancer. Other determining factors are the age and general health of the patient as well as his or her medical history. Each drug or treatment plan has different side effects. It is hard to predict what side effects a patient will have, even if patients get the same treatment. Some effects can be severe and others fairly mild. It is true that some people have a tough time with cancer treatment, but there are also many who manage quite well throughout treatment. For more details concerning side effects, click here.

Chemo side effects

Short-term (and often treatable) side effects of chemo can include nausea and vomiting, loss of appetite, hair loss, and mouth sores. Because chemo can damage the blood-producing cells in the bone marrow, patients may have low blood cell counts. This can lead to:

  • increased risk of infection (from a shortage of white blood cells)
  • bleeding or bruising after minor cuts or injuries (from a shortage of blood platelets)
  • anemia (from low red blood cell counts), which can cause tiredness, shortness of breath, pale skin, and other symptoms

Cancer care teams must work carefully with the patient to manage the side effects of chemo. Because everyone’s body is different, each person will respond differently to chemo. Most of the side effects of chemo go away after treatment ends. For example, hair lost during treatment always grows back. In the meantime, most patients are able to use wigs, scarves, or hats to cover, warm, or protect their heads.

Radiation side effects

Radiation treatments are much like x-rays and do not cause any pain. The most common side effects are skin irritation and fatigue. Fatigue is a feeling of extreme tiredness and low energy. It is especially common when treatments go on for many weeks. Fatigue often does not get better with rest. People also sometimes say that their fatigue is made worse by the daily trips to the hospital to get their radiation treatments.

Is cancer treatment worse than cancer?

This is a belief that can be dangerous to some people. Those who think this is true might not follow important treatment recommendations that can save their lives.

It is easy to understand one of the sources of this belief. Often people diagnosed with cancer have never had any symptoms or pain, or any problems they’ve had have been fairly small. In the early stages of cancer, symptoms tend to be minor, if there are any at all. It is only after the treatment starts that people start to feel sick. It is also true that chemo, radiation, and surgery can cause distressing symptoms. But the side effects fade after the treatment is over, and the treatment can be life-saving.

Sometimes a person in very poor health may not be able to take cancer treatment. Or because of age and other medical conditions, a person might decide not to be treated for cancer, even knowing that it will cause death. This is every person’s choice, as long as the person is a competent adult who is able to handle his or her affairs.
The person who is thinking of refusing treatment must clearly understand the likely outcomes of both treatment and non-treatment before making a decision to refuse treatment. Later in the course of cancer, when more serious symptoms start, curative treatment may no longer be an option. Cancer kills by invading the intestines, lungs, brain, liver, kidneys, or other vital organs, or by interfering with a body function that is necessary for life. Untreated cancer commonly causes death.

In contrast, cancer treatment is usually fairly short term and can save lives. Even when it cannot cure, treatment can often prolong life. And medical care can always be used to make a person more comfortable by reducing pain and other symptoms caused by the cancer or its treatment.