What Is Cancer?

Cancer is a group of many related diseases. All forms of cancer involve out-of-control growth and spread of abnormal cells.

Normal body cells grow, divide, and die in an orderly fashion. During the early years of a person’s life, normal cells divide more rapidly until the person becomes an adult. After that, normal cells of most tissues divide only to replace worn-out or dying cells and to repair injuries.

Cancer cells, however, continue to grow and divide, and can spread to other parts of the body. These cells accumulate and form tumors (lumps) that may compress, invade, and destroy normal tissue. If cells break away from such a tumor, they can travel through the bloodstream, or the lymph system to other areas of the body. There, they may settle and form “colony” tumors. In their new location, the cancer cells continue growing. The spread of a tumor to a new site is called metastasis. When cancer spreads, though, it is still named after the part of the body where it started. For example, if prostate cancer spreads to the bones, it is still prostate cancer, and if breast cancer spreads to the lungs it is still called breast cancer.

Leukemia, a form of cancer, does not usually form a tumor. Instead, these cancer cells involve the blood and blood-forming organs (bone marrow, lymphatic system, and spleen), and circulate through other tissues where they can accumulate.

It is important to realize that not all tumors are cancerous. Benign (noncancerous) tumors do not metastasize and, with very rare exceptions, are not life-threatening.

Cancer is classified by the part of the body in which it began, and by its appearance under a microscope. Different types of cancer vary in their rates of growth, patterns of spread, and responses to different types of treatment. That’s why people with cancer need treatment that is aimed at their specific form of the disease.

In America, half of all men and one-third of all women will develop cancer during their lifetimes. Today, millions of people are living with cancer or have been cured of the disease. The risk of developing most types of cancer can be reduced by changes in a person’s lifestyle, for example, by quitting smoking or eating a better diet. The sooner a cancer is found, and the sooner treatment begins, the better a patient’s chances are of a cure.

Reprinted from the American Cancer Society’s website,cancer.org. The American Cancer Society is the nationwide community-based voluntary healthy organization dedicated to eliminating cancer as a major health problem by preventing cancer, saving lives and diminishing suffering from cancer, through research, education, advocacy and service.