What You Should Know About Cancer

What is cancer?

Cancer is a group of more than 100 diseases in which cells in the body grow out of control. These cells may lump together to form a tumor, or they may circulate freely in the blood, as leukemia does. Cells from a tumor can break away and settle down in other parts of the body in a process called metastasis. Not all tumors are cancerous (malignant). Benign tumors, for example, do not grow or spread, and they rarely threaten life.

What causes cancer?

  • No one knows the exact causes of most cancers. However, some cancers are associated with certain behaviors or conditions, such as
  • smoking – causes cancers of the lungs, mouth, throat, bladder and other organs, as well as heart disease and stroke
  • excess alcohol intake – increases a person’s chance of getting cancer of the mouth, throat and other organs
  • excessive radiation – can make people more vulnerable to cancer
  • too much exposure to sunlight – associated with skin cancer
  • inherited genetic makeup – accounts for about 1 in 20 cases of cancer

Is cancer contagious?

No! You can’t catch cancer by touching or being near someone who has the disease. Friends, families and acquaintances can visit cancer patients without any fear of contracting cancer themselves. In fact, visitors can help cancer patients cope with the disease and its treatment.

How is cancer treated?

Doctors use three main treatments for cancer – surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. Solid tumors are often removed surgically to eliminate as much of the cancer as possible. Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells. The drugs may be administered intravenously (in a vein) or given orally (by mouth). Radiation targets high-energy rays at cancer cells to kill them. Hormone therapy, bone marrow transplant, biotherapy or immunotherapy are sometimes used to treat cancer as well.

Is cancer treatment worse than the disease?

Because people rarely feel really sick when they are diagnosed with cancer, they may think that treatment has to be worse. Don’t be fooled – untreated cancer commonly causes death. Many cancer treatments do have unpleasant side effects, but they can be prevented or controlled. Cancer treatments usually do not last for a long time, and they can prolong a person’s life. Although worrying about the effects of treatment and feeling sick are normal, every year cancer treatments get more effective and doctors learn better ways to minimize the side effects.