Cancer is a disease, in which cells start to divide uncontrolled, causing a swelling (tumor). There are benign and malignant tumors. Benign tumors (e.g. warts) are relatively harmless. The cells of malignant tumors can penetrate surrounding tissues and organs. In this case we speak of cancer.
There are certain risk factors that can increase the chance of getting cancer:
- Age. The older a person gets, the more chance he or she has to have cancer.
- Genetic predisposition. Some cancers have a strong genetic link.
- Lifestyle. Unhealthy nutrition, drinking a lot of alcohol, insufficient exercise, etc.
- Radiation. Radioactive substances, excessive exposure to the sun, etc.
- Working or getting in touch with carcinogens (tobacco smoke, asbestos, etc.).
- Infection. Some viruses are linked to specific types of cancer, such as Hepatitis B and C virus.
- Immune system. People with a poorly functioning immune system are at increased risk of developing certain types of cancer.
Most types of cancer are likely due to a combination of factors. Everyone has a chance to get cancer.
There are many different types of cancer: breast cancer, skin cancer, lung cancer, intestinal cancer, etc. Some types are more common than others. These diseases all have specific symptoms. Yet there are signs and symptoms that should be investigated because they could potentially indicate cancer:
- Persistent hoarseness or cough.
- Difficulty swallowing.
- New or changed moles.
- A scaly spot on the skin.
- A thickening or lump in the body.
- Unusual vaginal bleeding or abnormal discharge.
- Permanent change in bowel movement for no apparent reason.
- Urinary problems or changes in urination.
- Weight loss without reason.
- All symptoms that last longer than four weeks.
Malignant tumors can spread (metastasize). This implies that tumor cells move by means of lymph nodes or bloodstream to somewhere else in the body in order to grow into a new tumor. For example, breast cancer can metastasize to the lungs.
The earlier cancer is detected, the greater the chance that it can be treated before it spreads to other tissues or organs in the body. With the methods that are available nowadays for cancer screening, many cases can be detected early enough to be cured.
An accurate diagnosis requires in most cases examination of a tissue sample (biopsy), X-ray examination and laboratory tests.
There are various methods to treat cancer. The most commonly used methods are:
- Surgery. Here, the tumor is removed as well as possible.
- Radiotherapy. Destroying locally cancerous cells by irradiation.
- Chemotherapy. Treatment with cell-killing and cell division inhibitory drugs.
- Hormone therapy. This treatment is aimed at inhibiting or blocking the activity of hormones.
- Immunotherapy. Treatment with drugs that stimulate or simulate a body’s immune response against cancer cells.
These treatments are sometimes applied separately, but cancer is often treated with a combination of methods. The various treatment methods must be well adjusted to one another in order to get the best possible result. Depending on, among other things, the stage of the disease, the doctor determines for which treatment the patient is eligible.
The various treatment options for cancer may have a different purpose. Curative treatment is aimed to cure the patient. Palliative treatment is focused on slowing down the disease or reducing the symptoms. Then, the disease is not curable anymore.
Cancer is a deadly disease. The prognosis with cancer depends on several factors: the type of cancer, the size and specific characteristics of the tumor, the presence or absence of metastases and the personal characteristics of the patient. The prognosis is generally best when no metastases are found and the original tumor can be treated. Then, the cancer process can still be reversed. A patient can be declared cured if no new tumor is found after five years. Some tumors have a longer period (usually ten years).
- The term ‘cancer’ is derived from the Latin word cancer, that originally means ‘crab’. This name was given to the disease by the Greco-Roman doctor Claudius Galenus, because in ancient times the disease was identified by the striking red, swollen blood vessels in the vicinity of the tumors, that looked like the red legs of a crab. The Latin word tumor means ‘swelling’.
- The prevalence of cancer is 4%.