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Cancer

Definition

Cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells in the body. Cancerous cells are also called malignant cells.

Alternative Names

Carcinoma; Malignant tumor

Causes

Cancer grows out of normal cells in the body. Normal cells multiply when the body needs them, and die when the body doesn't need them. Cancer appears to occur when the growth of cells in the body is out of control and cells divide too quickly. It can also occur when cells forget how to die.

There are many different kinds of cancer. Cancer can develop in almost any organ or tissue, such as the lung, colon, breast, skin, bones, or nerve tissue.

There are many causes of cancer, including:

However, the cause of many cancers remains unknown.

The most common cause of cancer-related death is lung cancer.

The three most common cancers in men in the United States are:

In women in the United States, the three most common cancers are:

Some cancers are more common in certain parts of the world. For example, in Japan, there are many cases of stomach cancer, but in the United States, this type of cancer is unusual. Differences in diet or environmental factors may play a role.

Some other types of cancers include:

Symptoms

Symptoms of cancer depend on the type and location of the cancer. For example, lung cancer can cause coughing, shortness of breath, or chest pain. Colon cancer often causes diarrhea, constipation, and blood in the stool.

Some cancers may not have any symptoms at all. In certain cancers, such as pancreatic cancer, symptoms often do not start until the disease has reached an advanced stage.

The following symptoms can occur with most cancers:

Exams and Tests

Like symptoms, the signs of cancer vary based on the type and location of the tumor. Common tests include the following:

Most cancers are diagnosed by biopsy. Depending on the location of the tumor, the biopsy may be a simple procedure or a serious operation. Most patients with cancer have CT scans to determine the exact location and size of the tumor or tumors.

A cancer diagnosis is difficult to cope with. It is important, however, that you discuss the type, size, and location of the cancer with your doctor when you are diagnosed. You also will want to ask about treatment options, along with their benefits and risks.

It's a good idea to have someone with you at the doctor's office to help you get through the diagnosis. If you have trouble asking questions after hearing about your diagnosis, the person you bring with you can ask them for you.

Treatment

Treatment varies based on the type of cancer and its stage. The stage of a cancer refers to how much it has grown and whether the tumor has spread from its original location.

Although treatment for cancer can be difficult, there are many ways to keep up your strength.

If you have radiation treatment, know that:

If you are going through chemotherapy, you should eat right. Chemotherapy causes your immune system to weaken, so you should avoid people with colds or the flu. You should also get plenty of rest, and don't feel as though you have to accomplish tasks all at once.

It will help you to talk with family, friends, or a support group about your feelings. Work with your health care providers throughout your treatment. Helping yourself can make you feel more in control.

Support Groups

The diagnosis and treatment of cancer often causes a lot of anxiety and can affect a person's entire life. There are many resources for cancer patients.

See: Cancer resources

Outlook (Prognosis)

The outlook depends on the type of cancer and the stage of the cancer when diagnosed.  

Some cancers can be cured. Other cancers that are not curable can still be treated effectively. Some patients can live for many years with cancer. Other tumors are quickly life threatening.

Possible Complications

Complications depend on the type and stage of cancer. The cancer may spread.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Contact your health care provider if you develop symptoms of cancer.

Prevention

You can reduce the risk of getting a cancerous (malignant) tumor by:

Cancer screenings, such as mammography and breast examination for breast cancer and colonoscopy for colon cancer, may help catch these cancers at their early stages when they are most treatable. Some people at high risk for developing certain cancers can take medication to reduce their risk.

References

Moscow JA, Cowan KH. Biology of cancer. In Goldman L, SchaferAI, eds. Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier;2011:chap 185.

Thun MJ, Jemal A. Epidemiology of cancer. In Goldman L,Schafer AI, eds. Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier;2011:chap 183.


Review Date: 9/3/2012
Reviewed By: David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.
The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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