What Is Cancer?
Cancer is the general name for a group of more than 100 diseases. Although there are many kinds of cancer, all cancers start because abnormal cells grow out of control. Untreated cancers can cause serious illness and death.
How normal cells act?
The body is made up of trillions of living cells. Normal body cells grow, divide to make new cells, and die in an orderly way. During the early years of a person’s life, normal cells divide faster to allow the person to grow. After the person becomes an adult, most cells divide only to replace worn-out or dying cells or to repair injuries.
How cancer starts?
Cancer starts when cells in a part of the body start to grow out of control. Cancer cell growth is different from normal cell growth. Instead of dying, cancer cells continue to grow and form new, abnormal cells. Cancer cells can also invade (grow into) other tissues, something that normal cells can’t do. Growing out of control and invading other tissues are what makes a cell a cancer cell.
Cells become cancer cells because of changes to their DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). DNA is in every cell and it directs all its actions. In a normal cell, when DNA is damaged the cell either repairs the damage or dies. In cancer cells, the damaged DNA is not repaired, but the cell doesn’t die like it should. Instead, the cell goes on making new cells that the body doesn’t need. These new cells all have the same damaged DNA as the first cell does.
People can inherit abnormal or faulty DNA (it’s passed on from their parents), but most DNA damage is caused by mistakes that happen while a normal cell is reproducing or by something in the environment. Sometimes DNA damage may be caused by something obvious like cigarette smoking or sun exposure. But it’s rare to know exactly what caused any one person’s cancer.
In most cases, the cancer cells form a tumour. Over time, the tumours can invade nearby normal tissue, crowd it out, or push it aside. Some cancers, like leukaemia, rarely form tumours. Instead, these cancer cells involve the blood and blood-forming organs and circulate through other tissues where they grow.
How cancer spreads?
Cancer cells often travel to other parts of the body where they can grow and form new tumours that crowd out normal tissue. This happens when the cancer cells get into the body’s bloodstream or lymph vessels. The process of cancer spreading is called metastasis.
No matter where a cancer may spread, it’s always named based on the place where it started. For instance, colon cancer that has spread to the liver is called metastatic colon cancer, not liver cancer. In this case, cancer cells taken from the liver would be the same as those in the colon. They would be treated in the same ways, too.
How cancers differ?
Different types of cancer can behave very differently. For instance, lung cancer and skin cancer are very different diseases. They grow at different rates and respond to different treatments. This is why people with cancer need treatment that’s aimed at their kind of cancer.
Tumorous that are not cancer?
A tumour is an abnormal lump or collection of cells, but not all tumours are cancer. Tumours that aren’t cancer are called benign. Benign tumours can cause problems – they can grow very large and press on healthy organs and tissues. But they can’t grow into (invade) other tissues. And they can’t spread to other parts of the body (metastasize). These tumours are seldom life threatening.
Cancer is a very scary word. We hear this word from medical professionals, may also read something about it or even having some idea what it might be but to explore the professional and the medical meaning of cancer, we invited Dr Hassan Azadeh, a senior lecturer at the Medical School, University of the Gambia and the health adviser of our Health Matters column to explain what really cancer means.
Cancer is not just one disease; but many diseases that occur in different areas of the body. Each type of cancer is characterized by the uncontrolled growth of cells. Cells are the very small units that make the human body. There are billions of cells in each person’s body. Under normal conditions, cell reproduction is carefully controlled by the body.
However, the malfunctions, resulting in abnormal cell growth and the development of a lump, mass, or tumour. Some cancer involving the blood and blood-forming organs do not form tumours but circulate through other tissues where they grow.
A tumour may be benign (harmless) and often don’t need treatment or malignant tumours- the cancer. Cells from cancerous tumours can spread throughout the body. This process, called metastasis, occurs when cancer cells break away from the original and travel in the blood circulation system until they are lodged in a small blood vessel network in another area of the body. They can invade nearby parts of the body and stop them functioning properly. Common locations of cancer cells from the origin tumour are the lung, liver, bones, kidney and finally central nervous system.
What causes cancer in the first place, and how quickly the cells grow and spread, is different from person to person and from cancer to cancer. A large number of people with cancer overcome the disease, or live fulfilled lives for many years after diagnosis.
The types of cancer refer to the organ or area of the body where the cancer first occurred. Cancer that has speared to other areas of the body is named for the part of the body where it originated. For example, if breast cancer has spread to the bones, it is called “part of breast cancer” and not bones cancer.
How can anyone get cancer?
Although every reader wants to know the answer to this question, the reason people develop cancer is not well understood. But the fact about cancer is that cancer doesn’t discriminate when it comes to race, sex or age – anyone can get cancer.
A recent American study shows that half the men and one-third of the women in the USA will develop cancer in their lifetime. The same study also estimated that about 1.4 million new cases of cancer are expected in 2007 and about 560,000 people will die of the diseases.
There are some known carcinogens (materials that can cause cancer), but many are still undiscovered. We do not know why some people who are exposed to carcinogens get cancer and others do not. The length and amount of exposure are believed to affect the chances of developing diseases.
For example, as exposure to cigarette, smoking increases the chance of developing lung cancer. Genetics also plays an important role in whether an individual develops cancer or possibly not. For example, certain types of breast cancer have a genetic component and may be passed on to the next generation.
Does smoking increase the risk of lung cancer?
Yes indeed. This is a very well known fact. Cigarette smokers not only have an increased risk of lung cancer, but also many other cancers, including mouth, lip, esophagus (gullet), kidney and now well established develop cancer of the neck of the woman’s womb called (cervical cancer)
Smoking also contributes to virtually all the non-cancerous but common heart, blood vessels (high blood pressure) and lung disorders, including fatal heart attacks and strokes.
Since 2004, lung cancer has overtaken breast cancer as the leading cause of cancer death in the industrialized courtiers, causing 18 per cent of deaths due to cancer compared with 16 per cent caused by breast cancer.
Is there any statistic available about Gambian cigarette smokers?
Unfortunately there are not any reliable statistics available from any countries so far including the Gambia. But on my own observation, living in The Gambia for many years, undoubtedly and unfortunately there are a very high increasing number of smokers here, in particular starting smoking in their very young age too, with the exception of Gambian girls and women.
Please let me give the smokers some medical advice.
There are two important facts that every smoker should remember;
1) First, 50 per cent of those who smoke will die prematurely as a result of nicotine, for one reason or another (usually cancer). That’s half of all smokers.
2) Second, it is always worth giving up after 12 to 15 years from the last cigarette you smoked, the risk of getting lung cancer drops (even in people who previously smoked quite heavily) to a level virtually as low as for non-smokers.
3) Male heavily smoking develop impotence and infertility due to lock of producing and decreasing of sperm quality
4) Heavy smokers have a higher chance to develop heart and blood pressure diseases
5) And finally high chance to develop lung cancer in increased rate.
What are the most common type of cancers?
The commonest types of cancer are;
• Lung cancer, there are more than 38,000 new cases of lung cancer in theUK every year.
• Breast cancer, is the most common form of cancer in women in the industrials countries. The rates of breast cancer are far less in the developing countries, possibly as a result as long periods of breastfeeding and less use of hormonal contraceptives.
• Cervical cancer, cancer of the neck of woman’s womb, high rate in the developing countries unfortunately also here in The Gambia too. Recommended all women who having sexual contact should have regular test called “cervical smear test” which detect the early changes of cervical cancer, available at BAFROW, MRC and some other health and medical centers.
• Stomach cancer, quite common in men, particularly in late middle age in both develop and developing countries. If detected early, it is also one of the most treatable cancers.
• Prostate cancer, a common cancer which is well treatable if detected in early stage of the disease.
• Skin cancer, most type of skin cancer is fully curable if detected early. Caution bleaching products are extremely unhealthy and can certainly cause skin cancer. Strong advice should be given to all these girls and women who using bleaching products to change their beautiful black colour into lighter colour. Unfortunately this is extremely common in The Gambia too.
• Childhood cancer, this is a cancer of lymphatic system-the system that helps the body fight infection.
What are the signs and symptoms of cancer?
Cancer gives you no symptoms or signs exclusively in early stage in particular internal cancer. Early complaint for cancer can explain a harmless condition as well. If you have symptoms, however, you should see a Doctor for further evaluation.
Some common symptoms are as follow;
• Persistent cough or blood stein salvia
• A change of bowel habits
• Blood in stool
• Unexplained anaemia (lack of blood)
• Breast lump or discharge
• Lump in the testicles
• A change in urination, blood in the urine
• Persistent lump or swelling in the glands
• Obvious change in a wart or a mole
• Indigestion or difficulty swallowing
• Unusual bleeding or discharge
• Unexpected weight loss, night sweats or fever
• No healing sores
• Long standing headaches
What are the risk factors associated with cancer?
* The inappropriate lifestyle, smoking heavily and/or drinking excessively or both are known to increase your risk of cancer in a very high rate
* Your nutritional (diet) and health condition, stomach ulcer caused by using excessive hot spices in the daily food or/and using increased of poor quality cooking oil and using unhealthy fat.
* The family history, about 10 per cent of cancer is due to an inherited condition. It’s possible that some cancer is being passed from one generation to the next. You might be a candidate for genetic screening to see whether inherited the disease that might increase your risk of cancer. Keep in mind that having an inherited genetic disease you have doesn’t necessary mean you will get cancer.
* Your environment, the environment around you may contain harmful chemicals that can increase your risk of cancer. Even if you don’t smoke, you might inhale second-hand smoke if you live with someone who smokes or you go to places where other people smoke.
Finally, what are your recommendations to reduce the risk of cancer?
* Bear in your mind that prevention is always better than cure and remember it is never too late to start decreasing all the above motioned risk factors, in particular stop smoking and/or drinking.
* Obesity (overweight) is associated with marked increasing diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure and some hormonal-dependent cancer, even such as breast and womb cancers. Studies have shown that population with diets high in fruits and vegetables and low in animal fat, meet, or calories have a remarkable reduced risk of some common types of cancers. Limit consumption of fat and refined carbohydrates, including pastries, sweetness, soft drinks, and limit sugars in tea, coffee and in particular in Ataya drink.
* Finally, while you are reading this article there are millions and millions of people suffering from cancer symptoms and complications worldwide. Be wise and do not join them as the risk of developing most types of cancer can be reduced by changing in person’s lifestyle and a healthy diet for every member of your family and as a nation as a whole.
For further information please seek advice from medical professionals at various Government Hospitals, NGO’s and private Clinics, call on West coast radio Dr Azadeh Healthtalk every Tuesday from 6-7 pm, text (only) Dr Azadeh on 7774469/3774469, email or firstname.lastname@example.org
Author DR AZADEH Senior Lecturer at the University og the Gambia, Senior Consultant in Obstetrics & Gynaecology, Clinical Director of Medicare Health Clinic.