What is cancer? You know the term and odds are great that you know someone personally who has suffered from a member of this constellation of diseases. But what exactly is it?
Cancer is basically a genetic disease in that something changes in the DNA inside certain cells and this, in turn, disrupts their normal functions. These changes might result in uncontrolled growth and this can cause problems simply by the tumor’s size and location. The cancerous tissues might obstruct a bowel or a bile duct, or compress brain cells and increase the pressure inside the cranium, or erode into nearby organs of blood vessels. Others changes within these cells might alter their internal workings so that they no longer function as intended or they might produce chemicals or hormones that alter the function of other cells within the body. Cancer comes in many forms.
What causes cancer? This has been the subject of debate, as well as a tremendous amount of research, for many many years. We have some answers, but there are even more questions. We know that things such as cigarette smoking, exposure to the sun, certain chemicals, and many other things can trigger these genetic changes within cells that can lead to cancers of various types.
Medicine has made tremendous strides in our understanding of cancer and in our methods of early detection, diagnosis, and treatment. There are programs for the early detection of breast and colon cancer and newer treatment protocols have revolutionized the approach to these malignancies. The progress in leukemia and lymphoma treatment, as compared to when I was in medical school, has been nothing short of astounding.
We often think of cancer as a modern scourge, but cancer is not a new disease. Not by a long shot. It’s been around for many centuries. Evidence for cancers have been found in Egyptian mummies and a recent report from Live Science underscores that.