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What is Cancer?

When you think of the word cancer, it brings to mind all sorts of images that are unpleasant to imagine (think cigarette boxes which prominently display a gnarly photo of throat cancer).

This evocative word refers to a group of related diseases, caused by uncontrolled division of cells which spread into surrounding tissues and lead to a malignant growth or tumour. Such disorganised division makes it difficult for the body to function the way it normally would.

How does it start?

Cancer can begin in almost any part of the body – which consists of trillions of cells – such as the colon, breast and even in blood.

In a healthy body, cells grow and divide to form new cells as and when the body requires them. So when cells age, or are damaged, they die and are substituted by new ones. But this organised system falls apart when cancer strikes. With cells gradually becoming abnormal, old and damaged cells do not die, while new ones grow even when they are not required.

Most types of cancers lead to the growth of solid tumours, or masses of tissue, while blood cancers like leukaemia do not. These tumours are malignant and can spread into surrounding tissues, and as they increase in size, some cancer cells may even separate and move to different areas of the body via blood or the lymph system.

The type of cancer that a person is diagnosed with depends on the origin of the cancer cells. For example, if the cancer cells started growing in your lungs and then travelled to your bones, it is still referred to as lung cancer. This process of cancer spread is called metastasis.

What about benign tumours?

Unlike their malignant counterpart, this type of tumours does not invade surrounding tissues, and when these tumours are excised, they generally do not grow back. However, the exception is for benign tumours in the brain – these can lead to loss of life.

Are all cancers the same?

Certain types of cancer develop and spread quickly while others take a longer time to grow. The type of treatment for a patient also depends on the type of cancer he is afflicted with. For some cancers, the best treatment is surgery, while others respond well to chemotherapy. Usually, a combination of two or more treatments is recommended.

What does the stages of cancer refer to?

The stages of cancer correspond to how far and how developed the cancer has grown from its original site. They also give doctors a better idea of which treatment to recommend for their patients. Generally, a lower stage (such as 1 or 2) indicates a lower rate of spread of cancer growth, while a higher number (3 or 4) is a sign of a higher rate. So early detection is extremely crucial for a higher chance of getting rid of the disease.

What is the likelihood of getting cancer?

As a genetic disease, it is derived from changes to genes which are in control of how our cells operate. These changes can come from our parents, or as a result of some environment exposes such as chemicals in cigarette smoke and radiation.