We have all heard of cancer. It’s a disease that may have taken the life of someone we love. Fortunately, times have changed, and more people are being cured or living long lives with cancer.
What is cancer? Cancer is actually a single name for more than 200 different diseases. For instance, there are eight different types of breast cancer and seven types of ovarian cancer. But what exactly makes cancer dangerous, and what do the different types have in common?
Cancer cells are renegades. Unlike normal cells, they have quit following the rules that normal healthy cells follow. The rules, set by the body, help cells divide and die off at rates that promote good health. Cancer cells divide more quickly and live longer than healthy cells. With cells replicating more quickly and not dying, a mass or tumor forms. While there are many types of tumors that do not cause any trouble—they are called benign—those that do are labeled as cancer.
Because cancer cells originate from our own native cells, the immune system—well trained to fight off intruders—does not always recognize the cancer cells as a threat. The cancer cells can go on dividing until they are either detected through routine screening or because symptoms arise.
Also unlike normal healthy cells, cancer cells can migrate from where they’ve originated to other areas of the body. Once it spreads, cancer is referred to as “metastatic.” When it’s found in more than one place, it can be more difficult to treat.
Prevention One of the best ways to combat cancer is to prevent it from forming in the first place. While not all cancers can be prevented—such as our age, gender, and family history—we know that most cancers can be attributed to a number of risk factors, such as tobacco use, diet and exercise, and exposure to harmful chemicals or radiation. Discuss with your doctor which of the risk factors in your life may be lessened by changes in your lifestyle.
Second, talk to your doctor about the screenings you should get, based on your risk factors. Screenings use imaging technology or other tests to find cancer before it causes symptoms. When caught early, the odds of defeating cancer improves. Mammograms, colonoscopies, and pap smears, for instance, save thousands of lives per year. Sometimes, like in the case of colonoscopy, a precancerous problem like a polyp can be removed then and there, before it has a chance to progress into something worse.
Treatments If your physician notices something worrisome, they will recommend more tests that will help determine whether it is cancerous, how advanced it is, and what type it is. The first treatment option for many is surgery. Specialized physicians make an incision and take the cancer out. By eliminating the vast majority of cancer cells, surgery makes a big positive difference for many types of cancer.
Many patients may also benefit from therapeutic radiation. Radiation oncologists use an invisible beam of high-energy X-rays to kill cancerous cells. In many patients, medical oncologists use medications, like chemotherapy or antibodies to slow or kill cancer cells. Many of these treatments are given intravenously, though some are taken by mouth. In the case of both radiation and chemo, cancer cells have greater difficulty than healthy cells for withstanding this treatment and will likely not be able to survive.
Recent Advances Great scientific strides are being made every year to help fight cancer in new ways. Many metastatic breast cancer patients, for instance, are living well and healthfully for many years after receiving their diagnosis, thanks to new drugs that keep the cancer from becoming too pervasive. New treatments for brain tumors use electromagnetic energy to upset cells’ ability to divide and slow tumor growth. Advanced computer modeling and new delivery techniques allow more targeted radiation therapy. The technology delivers treatment more quickly, which causes less disruption in patients’ lives. It also spares more healthy tissue, which relates to fewer side effects.
New genetic testing goes beyond defining the type of cancer. In some cases it can determine unique characteristics of your cancer’s genetic profile to develop a treatment specially designed to you. Scientists hope that these new treatments will work better to kill cancer cells and, because it is better at targeting just the bad cells, it can cause fewer side effects. Other scientists are working to develop drugs to harness the power of the immune system to defeat cancer cells. The drugs teach the immune system to recognize cancer as a threat.
While scientists are hard at work developing new and more effective treatments for cancer, prevent cancer and get your screenings. Then tune into the news for all of the new and extraordinary ways that science is helping to advance treatment of this deadly disease.
Dr. Charlene Ives is a medical oncologist and the medical director of the Cancer Center at SVMC, and Dr. Matthew Vernon is a radiation oncologist at the Cancer Center at SVMC.