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What is Cancer?

Michael Pollick
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Cancer is the general name for over 100 medical conditions involving uncontrolled and dangerous cell growth. Scientists suggest that some forms are caused by genetic factors, while other forms are caused by environmental conditions. In other words, one patient may already have a family history of breast cancer while another was exposed to a carcinogenic, or cancer-causing, chemical in a factory. The only difference is the root mechanism which triggered the abnormal cell growth.

Since cancer begins at the microscopic cellular level, the first signs of a malignant, or actively cancerous, growth are nearly impossible to detect without special tests and training. In the case of pancreatic cancer, for example, there is little to no pain involved as the first malignant cells form around the organ. As the tumor becomes more organized, new blood vessels may form to feed it directly or older vessels may be diverted. Meanwhile, the host body may only experience a few symptoms which resemble many other conditions. Only after a sample of suspicious tissue has been removed and tested can many forms of this condition be diagnosed.

One of the most insidious aspects of cancer is the way it grows. As the tumor outgrows the original organ, pieces of malignant tissue often breaks off, or metastasizes, and enters the bloodstream or lymph system. The cells can then attach themselves to other vulnerable organs and form new tumors. Thus a patient with pancreatic cancer may eventually have lung, brain, kidney, breast or colon cancer as well. This is why oncologists place so much emphasis on containing malignant tumors to their place of origin.

Treatment for these conditions ranges from rounds of powerful chemicals to focused burst of radiation to complete surgical removal of the tumor and surrounding tissue. Each treatment type brings a certain level of risk and pain to the patient, but cancerous cells left untreated will almost inevitably choke off vital organs and circulation. Chemotherapy introduces strong medicines which target fast-growing cells, but this also includes normal events such as hair growth and digestion. Radiation treatments use heat energy to literally burn off malignant cells, but healthy tissue is also damaged. Surgical removal can lead to a permanent recovery, but undetected malignant cells may have already metastasized to other organs or be jarred loose by the surgery itself.

Curing cancer has been a major goal of medical researchers for decades, but development of new treatments takes time and money. Already, there are many forms of cancer which are no longer considered untreatable. Some cancers, such as leukemia, can actually stop growing as suddenly as they started. This is called remission. Science may yet find the root causes of all cancers and develop safer methods for shutting them down before they have a chance to grow or spread.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick , Writer
As a frequent contributor to The Health Board, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

Discussion Comments

By anon2451 — On Jul 11, 2007

We are wanting to make a state display showing the many kinds of cancers in humans: a visual effect to bring attention and educate the public. We thought about using campaign type buttons, painting and printing the cancer's name on each button, attaching to the display. We need to know as many cancers humans can get and a one-line description to place under the cancer's name (for these buttons). HELP!

Michael Pollick

Michael Pollick


As a frequent contributor to The Health Board, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide...
Learn more
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