Nearly everyone has had their life touched by cancer in some way. Cancer is one of the leading killers among men and women in the United States, and most know a friend, family member, or co-worker who has fought with cancer.
However, in spite of the high prevalence of cancer, very few actually know what cancer really is.
What is Cancer Exactly?
Cancer is the name used to describe a collection of related diseases, and is a disease in which normal cell growth is interrupted. Normal cells divide, grow old, and die, and they respond to signals which tell them to stop or start dividing. Cancer cells do not respond to the body’s natural signals to halt cell growth. Cancer cells divide without stopping and become invasive by spreading into surrounding tissues. Cancer cells also do not mature to assume specific functions as normal cells do which only further promotes their uncontrollable growth.
Cancer may arise in any part of the body, and can form large masses of tissue, or growths, called tumors. Not all cancers, however, such as cancers located in the blood, form tumors. When cancer does form a tumor, the mass may either be malignant or benign. Malignant tumors are dangerous as they continue to spread and invade surrounding tissues. They can even travel to other places in the body using the blood stream or lymph nodes to start new tumors. Benign tumors are typically not as dangerous as malignant tumors, and usually do not grow back after they are removed.
How Do I Develop Cancer?
An individual may develop cancer due to either being genetically predisposed or through environmental exposures. The way in which genes are likely to cause cancer can actually be passed down from parents to their children. Some individuals who are genetically predisposed to cancer may develop cancer, and others may not.
Environmental exposures can also increase the likelihood of developing cancer as certain exposures can damage cells. Specific environmental exposures that heighten the risk for cancer include radiation and the chemicals found in tobacco smoke. The less an individual exposes themselves to these types of environmental factors (i.e. quits smoking or regularly uses sunscreen), the less likely they are to develop cancer due to such factors.
How Do I Know if I Have Cancer?
Because cancer is a term used to describe a large number of related diseases, there are a variety of symptoms that a person may experience prior to a cancer diagnosis. Some cancers may not even present symptoms until well into their later stages. The best way to determine whether or not you have cancer, or are at-risk for cancer, is by seeking genetic testing and molecular diagnostic testing.
Which Tests are Accurate?
Because cancer is a diverse group of diseases, detection has traditionally involved several different methods, each specific to a specific type of cancer. Cancer detection was also considered more reactive, only to be completed when a patient complained of a certain set of symptoms or stated that they had a family history of cancer. Although methods for cancer detection such as X-Ray, CAT scan, and MRI are typically accurate, they usually catch cancer in its middle to late stages. Catching cancer in later stages makes treatment more difficult, and increases the likelihood of fatality.
Molecular diagnostic testing, however, allows individuals to determine well in advance if they have the genes capable of producing cancer. In addition, it offers non-invasive tests for the KRAS mutation and BRAF mutation genes. These genes are strongly linked to abnormal cell growth, and if a person is found to have these genes, they can more closely monitor themselves to increase their likelihood of catching cancer in its early stages. Cancer caught in its early stages is more likely to be treatable.