What is Cancer

Illustration of cancer cells

Cancer is an alteration from the normal behavior of the body’s cells. Normally as the body’s cells age, grow or become damaged, new cells grow to replace them. The new cells are meant to be exact copies of old cells, however, mistakes can be made in the copying process. Specifically, these inherited mistakes can result in cancer if the mutated cells grow and divide in an uncontrolled way. Since this can happen to any cell in the body, cancer is not a single disease but rather a collection of related diseases.

The genetic changes resulting in cancer are sometimes caused by environmental exposures (such as smoking) or through inherited predispositions. Therefore, many preventative measures can reduce the risk of developing cancers such as quitting smoking, limiting exposures to known carcinogens and maintaining a healthy diet with exercise. However, some cancers are also sporadic, meaning that the cancer occurs at random. Just because a person is healthy, unexposed and without family history of cancer does not mean that a cancer will not develop. This is why it is important to perform screening tests as recommended.

Cancer Names & Types

Cancers are categorized by the part of the body and type of tissue they arise from. A general medical term for the most common cancers is carcinoma. The location where the cancer comes from is named first. Next, a prefix that describes the type of tissue the cancer arises from is added to carcinoma. For example, adeno means gland. Therefore, a breast cancer that arises from a gland is referred to as a breast adenocarcinoma.

Although useful, this information alone does not describe the stage of the cancer (how advanced the cancer is). Staging the cancer is necessary to determine the best treatment options and prognosis. Staging involves a combination of scans, labs, exams and procedures which are specific to the type of cancer. The stage itself is given on a scale of 1 to 4 (I – IV). A Stage I cancer is discovered early. A stage IV cancer is discovered late when it has spread to other parts of the body.

Learn more about different types of cancer and about treatment.