Source: Cancer Resource Room
Cancer is a disease caused by cells that
grow without the body's control. These
uncontrolled cells grow to form a tumor.
The cancer cells can break away from
the tumor and spread to other parts of
the body. Cancer cells do not work like
normal cells. Whatever job the normal
cells are supposed to do in the body
is not done correctly or at all by cancer
Each type of cancer depends on
the cells that are the cause of the disease.
For example, if the abnormal, cancer-causing
cells are lung cells, then the cancer
is lung cancer. Any organ or tissue can
develop cancer and the cancer will be
named for that organ. Cancer cells from
the breast cause breast cancer; cancer
cells in the pancreas cause pancreatic
cancer, and so on.
Are all cancers the same?
two cancers are exactly the same, even
when they are cancers of the same organ.
The differences have to do with what
is called the "biology" of the disease.
While there are general ways in which
cancers are similar, it means that each
cancer has its own characteristics that
make each person react differently to
the cancer and its treatment. Cancer
is a change in cells that lets the cells
divide into new cells without any control.
As new cells are produced, a tumor is
formed. In cancers, the cells can break
free of the tumor or group of cancer
cells and travel through the blood or
lymph system (the infection fighting
system) to other parts of the body.
The tendency of cancer cells to grow,
divide into more cancer cells, and spread
through the blood or lymph varies among
cancers. These differences in growth
and spread of a cancer have a lot to
do with how each one is treated. Cancers
that grow slowly and do not spread easily
often can be treated by simply removing
the tumor. Other cancers that tend to
grow rapidly and spread easily will need
treatment of the original tumor and of
the whole body. These treatments often
include surgery and chemotherapy.
Do cancers come from something
inside or outside the body?
is a disease that is caused by the
body's own cells. Our cells have
special control signals in them that
are supposed to limit the size of cells
and the number of new cells. These controls
limit cells to just what the body needs.
In cancer cells, the control signals
are lost and the cells grow when they
should not. No one knows why these controls
fail, but it is not a problem that can
be "caught" like a cold or other infection.
There are some cancers that have been
linked to things in the environment.
Even though it still is not known exactly
how these conditions cause the cancer
to start, the association is strong enough
to warn people to avoid them.
Some examples will help in understanding
- UV radiation in sunlight causes changes
in skin cells that can lead to melanoma,
a serious skin cancer.
- Sun exposure is also linked to two
other cancers, squamous cell carcinoma
of the skin and basal cell carcinoma.
- Knowing about this link between sun
exposure and skin cancers has lead
to the widespread use of sunblock
- Another example of a link between
cancer and an environmental cause
is smoking and lung cancer.
Many of these examples exist, and they
help us avoid things that make the risk
of getting cancer higher than normal.
What do the names of cancers mean?
Cancers are named in several different
ways. This can be confusing.
Cancers may be named for the organ the
cancer started in.
- Most cancers are named for the organ
the cancer cells are part of.
- For example, lung cancers start from
lung cells. There are different types
of lung cells, so there are several
types of lung cancers.
- Cancer cells from the breast cause
breast cancer; cancer cells in the
pancreas cause pancreatic cancer,
and so on.
Cancers may be named for the type of cell
that is cancerous in the organ.
- In the breast, there are cells that
produce milk in the lobules. If these
cells become cancerous, they cause
lobular cancer of the breast. But
if the cells of the tubes or ducts
that deliver the milk to the nipple
cause cancer, it is called ductal
cancer of the breast.
- The name usually describes the type
of cell and the organ where the cancer
- When a cancer spreads from where
it started to another part of the
body, it keeps the same cancer name.
If cancer starts in the prostate,
it is prostate cancer. If it spreads
to the bone, it is still prostate
cancer. If it spreads to the lungs
or liver, it is still prostate cancer.
The only thing that changes is that
when a cancer spreads, it is called "metastatic." So,
metastatic prostate cancer of bone
is cancer that started in the prostate
and spread to the bones. It is not
Cancers also may have names that do not
have anything to do with where the disease
started. Sometimes cancers are named
for the physician who first described
- For example, Hodgkin's disease
is named for the doctor who described
Other cancers are named for the type of
cell the cancer cells resemble.
- An example of this is synovial
cell sarcoma, which does not start in
the tissue called synovium, but the cells
look like synovial cells.
These names are not meant to be confusing.
They let the doctors who treat cancer
communicate about these different diseases
accurately, especially when choosing
treatments and following the success
of the treatments. If you do not understand
what the name of a cancer means, it is
helpful to ask your doctor to explain
A word about words
When you get cancer, many things can be
unfamiliar. One difficulty is trying
to understand a lot of new words, or
new uses of words we think we know. The
following words are explained to help
with this problem. Many other words are
explained in the Learn About Cancer sections
where they apply to a certain cancer.
- Local disease-means the cancer located
in the spot it started
- Distant disease-is cancer that has
spread from the place it started
to other parts of the body, that
is, "distant" from the original spot
- Regional nodes-lymph nodes nearby
the original site of the cancer.
If the cancer spreads, it usually
goes to these lymph nodes before
- Distant nodes-lymph
nodes not near the original site
of the cancer
- Primary-the original
cancer, the place the cancer started,
or the organ the cancer cells first
- Second primary-a new cancer
in a person who has had a different
type of cancer in the past. It means
the new cancer is not a return or
spread of the first cancer, but is
a separate disease altogether.
disease-cancer that has
returned or regrown after the original
treatment was completed
of cancer from the place it started
to other parts of the body. Common
places for cancer to metastasize
are lymph nodes, bones, liver, lung,
- Margin-the edge of tissue that is
removed with a tumor. It is what
separates the tumor tissue from the
surrounding normal tissues. If the
margin is "negative," then no tumor
cells are at the edge of what was
removed. If the margin is "positive," then
there are tumor cells at the edge
of what was removed. Margins are
often measured in millimeters (mm)
to describe how far the tumor cells
are from the normal tissue it was
cut away from.
- Positive-what was
being looked for was found or is
- Negative-what was being looked
for was not found
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