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Cancer or malignancy is a group of diseases marked by abnormal cell growth which can easily invade and spread to other parts of the body. They are more than 100 different types of cancers which can be classified depending on their origin. Symptoms usually vary depending on the type. Treatment plans usually include surgery, radiation and/or chemotherapy. Hormone and biological therapy along with stem transplantation can also help in cancer treatment.
Our body makes new cells as and when required and replacing the old ones that die. However, sometimes this process can go very wrong whereby the cells keep proliferating in an uncontrollable manner and do not respond to the signals that control normal cell behavior which gives rise to a malignancy. The abnormally grown cells form a mass or a lump which is called a tumor. Tumors are of two main types:
- Malignant Tumor: A malignant tumor is capable of both invading the surrounding tissue and spread to other parts of the body via the circulatory or lymphatic system wherein it can give rise to a malignancy.
- Benign Tumor: A benign tumor does not invade or spread to other parts of the body.
Cancers are usually distinguished from the organ they originate, such as lung cancer, breast cancer, moth cancer, blood cancer, cervical cancer, etc. Although most cancers can be classified into four main categories:
- Carcinomas: Is a type of cancer that develops from epithelial cells. Carcinomas are further classified into various subtypes including basal cell carcinoma, adenocarcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and transitional cell carcinoma.
- Sarcoma: A cancer of mostly the connective or supportive tissue that originates in bone, cartilage, fat, muscle, blood vessels
- Leukemia: Is a group of cancers that originates in the blood marrow and produces high numbers of abnormal white blood cells (blasts).
- Lymphoma or Myeloma: Cancers which originate in the lymphoid cells (cells of the immune system)
Cancers can be caused by various factors ranging from your genetics to your daily eating and exercise habits. While there are about 200 types of cancers roughly what affects one body tissue may not affect the other. While over exposure to sun or UV radiations can give you skin cancer or melanoma, smoking can result in lung cancer. However, sun cannot perhaps give you lung cancer and smoking won’t give you melanoma.
Cancers can be described as multifactorial wherein more than one factor may be involved in the development of a particular cancer. The various factors that can contribute to the development of a malignancy in the body are as follows:
- Chemical Agents: Exposure to certain substances has been linked to specific cancer developments. Such substances which cause cancer are called as carcinogens. Industrial chemicals or pollutants are cancer causing agents.
A particular occupation may expose a person to a host of harmful chemicals which may have carcinogenic effects (Asbestos, Formaldehyde, Hydrogen peroxide etc.) Certain herbicides and pesticides used for agricultural procedures may also have potent effects. In recent years, certain cosmetic and dermatological products have also been related to cancer risk. Tobacco smoking causes about 90% of lung cancer while excessive alcohol consumption may result in liver cancer.
- Diet and Physical Activity: Many lifestyle factors have been connected to development of cancer. Excess weight may increase the risk of cancer in many ways. One way in which excess weight can trigger cancer growth is by causing over production of estrogen and insulin which are known to stimulate cancer growth.
- Food: Certain specific foods are also linked to cancer. Potato chips and French fries are found to contain high levels of polyacrylamide, the exposure to which poses a risk to several types of cancer. Artificial sweeteners or sugar substitutes are also thought to cause cancer. Certain chemicals present in processed meats are also considered as risk factors for cancer development.
- Radiation: Exposure to radiations is related to up to 10% of invasive cancers. Cellphones emit radiofrequency energy which is also linked to cancer. Radiation in combination with other carcinogenic agents can feature as a more potent source of cancer. Example: Exposure to radon gas in addition to smoking tobacco. Radon is a radioactive gas, the exposure of which in high amounts increases the risk of lung cancer. Prolonged exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun can lead to melanoma and other skin malignancies.
- Genetic Makeup and Hereditary: Hereditary cancers are generally caused by a genetic defect that a child inherits from his/her parents. However only a small portion of all cancers that are inherited. Only a single genetic mutation cannot perhaps make a cell cancerous. Although a single gene defect increases the likelihood of other mutation triggers that increases the genetic predisposition towards cancer.
- Hormones: Certain hormones have been linked to play role in a cell turning cancerous. Some hormones can promote cell proliferation by initiating the release of insulin growth like factors. These factors also promote differentiation and apoptosis thereby
increasing the risk of cancer. Women who undertake hormone replacement therapy are at a higher risk of developing cancers associated with those hormones.
Signs and symptoms
Cancer signs and symptoms manifest in areas where the cancer is present. These usually vary depending on what part of the body is affected. However some general signs and symptoms associated with, but not specific to, cancer with:
- Lump or a thickened flesh that can be felt under the skin
- Extreme fluctuations in the weight, including unintended loss or gain
- Skin changes: yellowing, darkening or redness of the skin,
- Blood in urine
- Muscle or joint pain
- Changes in bowel or bladder habits
- Persistent cough
- Persistent indigestion or discomfort after eating
- Persistent, unexplained fevers or night sweats
Factors that increase the risk of cancer includes:
- Lifestyle Choices
- Family History
- Chronic Health Conditions
- Environmental Factors
The best chance of cure for any type of cancer is diagnosing it at an early stage. The screening of distinct signs and symptoms can serves as the primary stage in the diagnosis of cancer. However a definitive diagnosis requires more substantial evidence which can be acquired by examining a tissue sample by a pathologist. Suspected patients can be investigated with various medical tests:
- Physical tests: Abnormalities in physical characteristics (lumps or change in skin cancer) can be checked by feeling areas on your body which might indicate presence of a tumor.
- Laboratory Tests: Your doctor may be able to identify abnormalities caused by cancer by having a look at your blood or urine work. Example: Complete Blood Count (CBC) for Leukemia.
- Biopsy: A sample from the cancerous tissue will be collected for laboratory inspection.
- Imaging tests: Imaging tests used in diagnosing cancer are:
– Computerized tomography (CT) scan
– Bone scan
– Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
– Ultrasound and X-ray
- Chemotherapy: The treatment of cancer with one or more anti-cancer drugs is commonly referred to as chemotherapy. The efficacy of chemotherapy depends on the type and the stage of cancer. Although chemotherapy may not be able to provide a permanent cure it may work to reduce cancer symptoms, sometimes helping reduce the size of the tumor.
- Radiation Therapy: Radiation therapy encompasses the use of high powered ionizing radiations in an attempt to either cure or improve the symptoms of cancer. It initiates death of cancer cells by damaging their DNA.
- Surgery: Surgery is the primary method that is sought in the treatment of cancer wherein the goal is to remove cancer or as much of the cancer as possible. In certain cancers a surgery is all that is needed in the elimination of cancer from the body.
- Immune Therapy: Immune therapy aims to stimulate or help the immune system locate and kill the cancer cells.
Alternative therapies may not help in curing or treating your cancer, however, they may help in relieving some of the disease symptoms and cope with the various side effects of chemotherapy.
- Ayurveda refers to cancer as ‘Arbuda’. Several plant based natural products have shown extreme benefits in the treatment and management of cancer. Taxol, obtained for the bark of pacific yew has been studied for its anti-tumor activity in the treatment of various cancers. Aswagandha (Withania somnifera) is a natural anti-oxidant which can help increase the molecular effects of radiation by reducing glutathione in cancer cells post radiation. Experimental studies have shown some evidence in the use of garlic to fight against cancer. Polyphenol rich green tea has also been shown to have anti- cancer properties in treating esophageal and lung cancers. It is recommended to drink green tea to help cope with cancer symptoms.
- Acupuncture has been shown to help manage treatment related nausea, anxiety and vomiting. Acupuncture rarely produces any complications as long as sterile needles are used and appropriate procedures are followed. Strict hygiene in terms of sterile needles should be maintained as the chances of infection are high in cancer patients due to a weakened immune system.
- Aroma and massage therapy has been linked to relieving g some cancer symptoms such as nausea, pain, depression, anxiety etc. Although, it is best to take advice and permission from your doctor prior to attending a massage therapy. The therapist should avoid using intense pressure on certain areas such as directly over a tumor or where the skin is very sensitive due to surgery or radiation.
- Herbs and herbal supplements have long been used in the treatment of various diseases. Certain herbs and fruits have been studied for their anti-cancer properties such as hibiscus, ginseng root, rodent tuber, garlic, grape seeds, pomegranate, carrot etc. These have shown considerable help in the treatment of leukemia.
- Some preliminary studies have shown that yoga can help manage and improve depression, anxiety, fatigue and stress in cancer patients, particularly in women with breast cancer.
Survival rates of cancer vary depending on the type of cancer and by the stage at which it is diagnosed. Cancer is not a forgiving disease, and once a cancer has metastasized the prognosis of the disease degrades.
The complications that come with cancer are not as many as the ones that follow cancer treatment (chemotherapy, radiation therapy). Some of the complications are as follows:
- Diarrhea or Constipation
- Weight Loss
- Headaches and stroke-like symptoms
- Chemical Imbalances, such as excessive thirst, frequent urination
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