Cancer is a serious disease which can occur in anyone, male or female, child or adult. Cancer is an umbrella term used to define an illness involving the process of abnormal cells within the body dividing uncontrollably with the capability to invade and compromise other bodily tissues and impair normal organ processes. Cancerous cells can spread to other parts of the body, making the patient very sick.

It is important to remember that there is not just one type of cancer and cancer is not just one type of disease. There are more than 100 different types of cancer.

Common types of cancer include: bladder cancer, breast cancer, colon and rectal cancer, endometrial cancer, kidney (renal cell) cancer, leukemia, lung cancer, melanoma, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, pancreatic cancer, prostate cancer and thyroid cancer.

While cancer can not always be cured, there are ways to get healthy to prepare your body for fighting off such an illness if one were to be diagnosed. Practicing healthy lifestyle habits such as incorporating exercise and healthy eating into your everyday life may help you become stronger. Not smoking and an early diagnosis of the disease can also better one's chance at recovering.

Because there are so many different types of cancer, there are many different possible symptoms. Some symptoms of cancer may include:

  • A thickening or lump in the breast (which may be a sign of breast cancer)
  • A thickening or lump in another part of the body
  • A new mole or change in existing mole (which may be a sign of skin cancer)
  • A sore that does not heal
  • A hoarseness or a cough that does not go away
  • Changes in bowel or bladder habits
  • Discomfort after eating
  • Having a difficult time swallowing
  • Weight gain or weight loss for no obvious reason
  • Unusual bleeding or discharge
  • Feeling weak or very tired or fatigued

There are many more possible external signs and symptoms that could correspond with cancer. Anyone showing the above symptoms or any obvious changes to their health, should report their findings to their doctor. Only a doctor is able to confirm a cancer diagnosis so do not assume you have cancer because you notice a symptom listed above.

However, it is important to know that cancer in the early stages, does not cause obvious pain. If you display symptoms, schedule a full physical examination with your doctor and do not wait until you are in pain.

Because cancer can look different in many individuals, only a doctor can confirm a cancer diagnosis. You should schedule a full physical examination with your doctor and discuss your symptoms and findings that have lead you to suspect you may have cancer or be at risk of developing cancer.

Your doctor may ask about your family medical history to determine if cancer runs in your family. This may heighten your risk of the disease. Your doctor may also conduct lab tests which may include tests of blood, urine and other fluids that can later be more intricately studied beneath a microscope or in a lab.

Imaging procedures may be utilized as well in order to see if a tumor may be present within the body. Imaging procedures used may include x-rays, a CT scan, an ultrasound and an MRI. These all produce images of internal organs and structures so your doctor can see more clearly if there is something that doesn't belong.

A biopsy is another method of testing for cancer. Many times a biopsy is needed to confirm the presence of cancer. For this procedure, your doctor will remove a sample of tissue and send it to a lab to be further inspected. This tissue may be removed by needle, surgery or with an endoscope, a thin tube with a light on the end that is capable of removing tissue.

There are many different types of cancer treatment available. Many times patients have a choice about which treatment they would prefer. However, it is important to speak with your doctor to work out the best treatment option for you.

Your cancer treatment primarily depends on the type of cancer you have as well as the stage of the disease. Surgery is a common treatment for various types of cancers. A surgeon removes the tumor and tissue surrounding it to make sure the tumor cannot grow back. Lymph nodes nearby may also be taken out.

Radiation therapy is another form of treatment. Radiation therapy, or radiotherapy, uses high-energy rays to kill cancer cells. There are a few different types of radiation therapy including: external radiation (radiation coming from a machine outside of the body), internal radiation (radiation coming from radioactive material put near the infected tissue) and systemic radiation (radiation coming from liquid containing radioactive material going through the body).

Chemotherapy is the treatment most think of when they think of battling the disease. Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells. It is typically administered by mouth or through a vein. This treatment type is usually given in cycles. People may receive treatment for one or more days then are able to recover for a longer period of time before returning for more chemotherapy.

Hormone therapy prevents cancerous cells from getting or using the hormones they need to grow. Hormone therapy may include drugs given to the patient to stop the making of hormones or surgery to remove organs that create hormones.

Biological therapy, treatment that aids the immune system in fighting the disease, and stem cell transplants, the transplantation of stem cells so the patient can receive higher doses of chemotherapy or radiation, are additional treatment options for cancer.

Cancer occurs when abnormal cells multiply and divide without control, first compromising the organ it originates, and then invading different tissues throughout the body (metastasis) by traveling in the blood and lymph systems.

Cancer begins in the body's cells. Usually, healthy cells grow and divide in a controlled manner so the body can produce more cells as needed to keep the body healthy, strong and working properly. When cells become old or damaged, they are simply replaced with new and improved cells. But occasionally within the body, this process can go wrong. The DNA within a cell can become damaged and create a cell mutation which negatively affects how normal cells grow and divide. When this process goes awry, old and damaged cells cannot die when they need to and thereby new cells form but at a time when the body does not need them. These excess cells may join together forming a mass called a tumor.

Not all tumors are cancerous but malignant tumors are. Cells within these cancerous tumors can invade tissue surrounding it and spread to other areas in the body.

However, doctors are not sure what exactly causes cancer and why it may affect one individual and not another. There are risk factors of cancer, meaning it may increase the chance of a person developing the condition. The most common risk factors for cancer are:

  • Growing older
  • Tobacco
  • Sunlight
  • Ionizing radiation
  • Certain chemicals and other substances
  • Certain viruses and bacteria
  • Certain hormones
  • A family medical history of cancer
  • Alcohol
  • Poor diet, lack of physical activity and being overweight

Receiving a diagnosis of cancer may seem scary and overwhelming. While you seek medical treatment, remember there are lifestyle choices you can personally take in order to better take care of yourself while battling this disease.

You will need enough calories to maintain a healthy weight and to keep up your strength. Make sure to get plenty of protein.

Sometimes, especially during or after you receive medical treatment, you may not want or feel like eating. Foods may even taste differently to you. Talk to your doctor about this problem. They may refer you to a dietitian, one who can better help you manage your diet and plan meals for you.

Staying active while sick is still a possibility. It may make you feel better and is a good thing to consider. Try activities that involve physical activity but are not overly exerting such as walking, yoga or swimming. This kind of activity may reduce nausea and pain, even giving you more energy. Speak with your doctor first however, to make sure any physical activity is safe for you.

What is complementary and alternative medicine (CAM)? How can it help me?

  • Some patients with cancer choose to try and use CAM or complementary and alternative medicine. A certain type of treatment can be classified as complementary medicine when it is used along with standard medical treatment. Treatment can be called alternative medicine when it is used instead of standard treatment. CAM treatments include acupuncture, massage therapy, herbal products, vitamins, specialized diets, meditation and spiritual healing, among others. Many say that CAM treatments help them in feeling better. However, some of these treatments can change the way medical treatment affects you in harmful ways. Always speak to your doctor before seeking treatment like this as to make sure the affects will not endanger you.

I want to be screened for cancer. How do I do that?

  • Screening can be done at your doctor's office much of the time. Other screenings must be scheduled and done in a medical facility with x-rays and other equipment. Consult with your doctor about cancer screenings and they can schedule you one in a location that best suits you. There are many different types of screenings just as there are many different types of cancers. A mammogram is the screening tool doctors used to find signs of breast cancer. A mammogram is a clear picture of the breast using x-ray technology. The Pap test (or Pap smear) is used to check for cervical cancer. This test requires the swiping of cells from the cervix and sending it to a lab for further analysis. Individuals age 50 and over should be screened for colon and rectal cancer. This can be done with many procedures including a digital rectal exam and a colonoscopy.

In the midst of a cancer diagnosis, many things may seem unsure. Stress may become quite a large factor as you battle the illness, seek medical treatment and worry about factors such as money, your job and daily activities. Make sure to speak to others to get your questions answered. You do not have to stay living in the dark. Talk to your doctor, nurse or other healthcare professional about any inquiries you may have concerning your treatment, illness, continuing working or other activities. Know what your body can handle and ask before starting anything new.

In this difficult time, it may be a good idea to seek emotional support from those around you. Friends and family can be a good source of this. Cancer support groups may also be a good choice as speaking to others who personally understand your condition and situation may prove helpful and reassuring. Groups often offer support in person, over the phone or even online. Ask your doctor how to best find support groups right for you.

Review Date: 
October 2, 2012
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