What is Cancer?
Cancer is a disease that occurs when abnormal cells divide uncontrollably and start to destroy healthy body tissues. If a tumour stays where it is, growing slowly and not spreading into other tissues, it is called benign. If a tumour grows aggressively in an uncontrolled way it will eventually break out and invade other tissues. The primary tumour then spreads through the blood or lymphatic systems and forms secondary or metastatic tumours. Most cancers form a tumour but there are exceptions such as leukaemia.
What Causes Cancer?
There is no single cause for cancer; usually it is an interaction between several factors. A carcinogen is something that is known to cause cancer by damaging the genetic material (DNA) causing a mutation and transforming it into an abnormal cell, no longer responsive to normal control mechanisms. Carcinogens include chemicals like benzene which is used in manufacturing, found in coal, petroleum and also in cigarettes. Other carcinogens are radiation and viral infections. Sunlight, a high-fat diet and excess alcohol can also trigger cancers. However, there is still a mystery surrounding the cause of cancer and the search continues.
Types of Cancer?
A cancer can start from different cells and tissues and is named according to its origin.
What are the Symptoms?
Prevention and Treatment
Many cancers are preventable and those that are not can be treated if detected early enough.
1. Be prepared
2. Identify symptoms
Seek medical attention at once if you detect a lump anywhere in your body that should not be there – don’t wait for it to go away. If you feel pain or discomfort that you cannot explain, visit your medical practitioner. Also see your doctor if you are unwell over time and have unexplained symptoms such as weight loss or night sweats.
Diagnostic testing for cancer includes:
If it’s confirmed that you have cancer, you may be referred to an oncologist (a doctor specialising in the treatment of cancer to discuss treatment options). Or active treatment may begin with a surgeon or radiation specialist who will later liaise with the oncologist.
For some tumours the best form of treatment is surgical removal, particularly for easily accessible tumours that can be removed without damaging surrounding tissue, such as breast, colon and skin tumours. This might be all the treatment that is required.
Drugs that target rapidly growing cells circulate in the blood to all parts of the body so that cancer cells are killed wherever they are. Most normal cells are not rapidly dividing and are not harmed but some are; which explains why hair falls out, white blood cell numbers fall and sores around the mouth can develop during chemotherapy. Side-effects also include nausea and tiredness. Usually chemotherapy is repeated several times, monitoring the cancer in between treatments to see how effective it has been.
A form of energy called ionising radiation, which is a type of high-intensity x-ray, is used to kill cancer cells and shrink tumours. It can be given externally using a machine or internally by implanting a radioactive chemical into the body.
Some tumours need hormones to grow, such as breast cancer (oestrogen) and prostate cancer (testosterone). Drugs are available which block the actions of these hormones and slow the growth of the tumours they support.
Complementary or alternative medicine
Complimentary or alternative medicine can be used either in conjunction with or as an alternative to conventional medicine. Natural products may help your own body fight the cancer cells, by boosting the immune system or destroying toxins. Therapies like hypnotherapy, meditation and acupuncture are available. Discuss options with your oncologist or medical practitioner.
5. Support, counselling and palliative care
Sadly not all cancers can be actively treated or treatment fails to control metastatic spread over time. If this is the case, then support, counselling and palliative care will be discussed by your oncologist.
For more on Cancer visit cancersociety.org.nz
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