What is Cancer?

People get cancer when, for reasons that aren’t yet known, cells within their bodies divide without control or order. The body is made up of many types of cells, and it is normal for them to grow, divide (mutate) and produce more cells when the body needs them. Cancer occurs when cells keep dividing, even when new cells are not needed.

The mass of extra cells may produce a tumor that can be:

  • Benign (not cancer) – Benign tumors are rarely life-threatening, and they do not spread to other parts of the body. They often can be removed and usually do not grow back.
  • Malignant (cancer) – Malignant tumors can invade, damage and destroy nearby tissues and spread to other parts of the body.

How does Cancer develop and spread?

As mutant cells (those with mistakes in their genetic blueprint) grow and divide, a mass of abnormal cells or a tumour is formed. In some cases these cells will form a discrete lump, in other cases such as leukaemia (type of blood cancer), abnormal blood cells circulate around the body. Cancer cells can break away from the mass (or tumour) and travel via the bloodstream or lymphatic system to different parts of the body. These cells can settle in other parts of the body to form a secondary cancer or metastasis.

What are the early signs of cancer?

While you are taking the steps to stay cancer-free, you need to keep aware of the symptoms that may be associated with cancer. These are:

  • Lumpiness or a thickened area in your breasts, any changes in the shape or colour of your breasts, unusual nipple discharge, a nipple that turns inwards (if it hasn’t always been that way) or any unusual pain.
  • A lump in the neck, armpit or anywhere else in the body.
  • Sores or ulcers that don’t heal.
  • Coughs or hoarseness that won’t go away or coughing up blood.
  • Changes in toilet habits that last more than two weeks, blood in a bowel motion.
  • New moles or skin spots, or ones that have changed shape, size or colour, or that bleed.
  • Unusual vaginal discharge or bleeding.
  • Unexplained weight loss.

Remember, these symptoms do not always mean cancer, and only your doctor can make a diagnosis. Report these symptoms to your healthcare provider promptly.

What causes Cancer?

Even though it is not known why cancer occurs, there is proof that certain things can increase your chance of developing the disease. Research has shown that some of these risk factors affect the DNA of cells in the body organs, which can result in abnormal cell growth and may cause tumors to form.

A risk factor is anything that affects your chance of getting a disease such as cancer.

What are risk factors for Cancers?

Different cancers have different risk factors. For example, unprotected exposure to strong sunlight is a risk factor for skin cancer. Smoking is a risk factor for many cancers. But risk factors don’t tell us everything. Having a risk factor, or even several risk factors, does not mean that you will get the disease. And many people who get the disease may not have had any known risk factors.

Certain health conditions may increase your risk for some cancers. Among these are colon polyps (abnormal tissue growths in the lining of the bowel) , previous cancer and Hepatitis B and C infections.

Who gets cancer?

Anybody can develop cancer. The risk of cancer increases with age – more than four times as many cancers are diagnosed in people over 60 years, as in those under 60. However, increased awareness about cancer, screening programs and early detection means that cancer is increasingly diagnosed in younger people – which means it is often at an earlier stage and can be treated more effectively.

Is Cancer contagious?

We now know that some cancer genes are hereditary and so several family members may have the same or related types of cancer. This is due to an inherited genetic disorder, not spending time together. Cancer is not contagious. There is no reason to avoid people with cancer, and in fact they will need your support and understanding. Human papilloma virus (HPV), a virus that causes 70% of cervical cancer, is contagious and is transmitted via sexual activity. However, cervical cancer itself is not contagious.

Does cancer causes pain?

Most cancers do not cause pain in the initial stages and that is one of the reasons why it does not get detected early. Pain usually is a late symptom and some people experience pain as the result of tumour growth or advanced cancer, or as a side effect of treatment.

Is Cancer always fatal?

Absolutely not. Advances in our knowledge about prevention, early detection and treatment mean that over 60% of people diagnosed with cancer today can be effectively treated. Almost nine out of 10 children with cancer are effectively treated and go on to live normal lives. As we further our knowledge about the disease, survival rates are likely to increase.

How I detect cancer Early?

Many times, the earlier cancer is diagnosed and treated, the better a person’s chances are for full recovery. Cancer in its earliest stages rarely has warning signs, so take the steps that will give you an added edge for early detection:

Get regular checkups by your doctor – Often your doctor can find early cancer during a physical exam or with routine tests, even if you have no symptoms. Ask your doctor about your cancer risk, problems to watch for and a schedule of regular checkups.

Ask to be screened for cancer – Research shows that Pap tests (for cervix cancer), mammograms (for breast cancer) and colon cancer tests save lives.

Do regular self-exams – Examining yourself on a regular basis can help you

  • Check your skin regularly for new growths; sores that don’t heal; changes in the size, shape or colour of moles; or any other changes on your skin. Report these warning signs to your doctor at once.
  • Look in a mirror to check the inside of your mouth for changes in the colour of your lips, gums, and tongue or inner cheeks. Also look for scabs, cracks, sores, white patches, swelling or bleeding. Have these symptoms checked by a doctor or dentist.
  • If you are a man, regularly do a testicular self-exam. Report a lump or other changes, such as heaviness, swelling, and unusual tenderness or pain to your doctor.
  • If you are a woman, do breast self-examination every month. This will help you learn what looks and feels normal for your breasts and will help you notice any changes. Report anything you feel is not normal to your doctor.

How is cancer Treated?

The type of cancer treatment or combination of treatments that a patient has depends on the type and stage of the cancer. The most common types of cancer treatment are surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

What if it is cancer is not possible to remove by Surgery?

Sometimes it may not be possible to remove the cancer by surgery for reasons which your doctor will discuss with you. In such a case you will be given an option of chemotherapy or radiotherapy treatment depending on the location of the tumor in your body.

What is Chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy is the use of anti-cancer drugs. The aim is to destroy all cancer cells while doing the least possible damage to normal cells. The drugs work by stopping cancer cells from growing and reproducing. In some cases, it can be used to increase the chance of cure or to shrink the size of the cancer before surgical removal. When cancer can’t be cured, chemotherapy can improve survival, reduce symptoms and improve quality of life. Chemotherapy is usually given by injecting the drugs into a vein (intravenous treatment). Recently oral chemotherapy tablets have also been developed.

What is Radiotherapy?

Radiotherapy treats cancer by using radiation to destroy cancer cells. Radiation can be targeted to cancer sites in your body. Treatment is carefully planned to do as little harm as possible to your normal body tissue. It can be given before or after surgery. It reduces the chance of cancer coming back. The treatment is given over a number of weeks, with a small dose of radiation each day from Monday to Friday. Each treatment only takes a few minutes. Chemotherapy may be used in addition to radiotherapy.

What are side-effects of treatment?

Usually when you suffer a disease you feel symptoms such as pain and the treatment makes you feel better. Unfortunately with some cancers, you may not have experienced any pain or discomfort until the treatment begins. Cancer treatments designed to kill cancer cells can have unpleasant side-effects, such as nausea and vomiting, bowel problems, tiredness, hair loss and scalp problems and effects on nerves and muscles. Before beginning treatment it is best to be aware of the possible side-effects and changes that your body may go through, and ways of managing or reducing them.

Cancer alternaltive treatments?

There are many “alternative therapies” that are promoted as cancer cures. They are unproven because they have not been scientifically tested, or were tested and found to be ineffective. If alternative therapies are used instead of evidence-based treatment, the patient may suffer, either from lack of helpful treatment or because the alternative treatment is actually harmful. Moreover there is a potential risk of delaying the available conventional treatment.