Cancer – Back to Basics

It’s a word we all know and many of us have felt the effects of cancer on ourselves or loved ones. But, do we really know what cancer is? Take a look at this “back to basics” article below to learn more about cancer.

What is Cancer?

Cancer is not just one disease, this word describes a number of diseases that happen when abnormal cells divide and spread to other organs and tissues. Normally, our cells divide, do their jobs and then die when they are damaged or as they age. With cancerous cells, they begin to grow out of control and eventually they crowd normal, healthy cells. Cancer cells also have the ability to travel to other organs and other parts of the body. This is called metastasis.

The cancer does not change names/types if it spreads. For example, if cancer begins in the lungs and metastasizes to the bones, it is still considered to be lung cancer. Cancer can begin in many places ranging from the breasts, to the prostate and even the blood. While most types of cancers have some commonalities, they differ in the way they grow and spread to healthy tissues.

Some cancers are fast and some change more slowly. Cancers also respond to treatment very differently and may require multiple types of treatment. For example, some cancers are best treated with surgery and some respond to chemotherapy. More on treatment options a little later.

Lumps, Masses, Growths & Tumors

When cancer cells grow, they tend to form a lump or growth. It is important to note that not all lumps are cancer. Typically, doctors will take a piece of the lump in order for the lab to determine if it is cancerous or benign.

There are a few cancers, most commonly leukemia (cancer of the blood) that do not form lumps or tumors. They grow in the blood cells or other cells in the body.

What Are Stages?

You may have heard in the past “my cancer is a stage 2.” Stages range from 1-4, with stage 4 being the most severe. This number is in reference to how much the cancer has spread. By knowing the stage, the doctor will decide how best to treat the cancer.


Treatments vary from patient to patient and from cancer to cancer. However, the most common types of treatment are surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.

Surgery is used to remove the cancerous growth or possibly the part of the body the cancer is affecting. An example would be breast cancer – the doctor may only surgically remove a lump or may advise the need to remove the entire breast.

Radiation is like an x-ray, but much more potent. There are several types of radiation therapy and the patient’s doctor will advise which is best for the patient and their medical condition.

Chemotherapy, often called “chemo” is the use of medication or drugs to treat the cancer. Chemo is used when cancer has spread, because it treats the whole body. Chemo can be administered via an IV or a pill.

Often, a combination of these treatments is used to achieve the best results.

What Causes Cancer?

This is a tough question. Some cancers have been linked to viruses and others to lifestyle choices. For most cancers, doctors are unsure what the root cause may be. It is easy to blame yourself or wonder what you could’ve done to prevent the cancer. Be sure to talk to your doctor, have a support team and focus on taking the best care of yourself moving forward.

Who Treats Cancer?

Cancer Myths

  • Cancer is a death sentence
    • Every patient is different, however, cancer death rates have been steadily dropping since the 1990s. For example, the five-year survival rate is now 90% or better for cancers such as breast, prostate and thyroid cancers.
  • Artificial sweeteners
    • There have been many studies on the safety of artificial sweeteners and those approved by the FDA have been proven safe. The National Cancer Institute has an article about artificial sweeteners and cancer.
  • Cancer surgery will cause my cancer to spread
    • Surgeons follow standard procedures and make many steps to prevent the likelihood of cancer spreading as a result of surgery. The chances of surgery triggering the spread of cancer is very low.
  • Cell phone cause cancer
    • According to studies, there is no link between cell phones and cancer. The low-frequency energy emitted by cell phones is not enough to damage or mutate genes.
  • No one in my family has cancer, so I am not at risk
    • Only about 5-10% of cancers are caused by genetically inherited genes. The remaining 90-95% of cancers are caused by environmental factors such as smoking and genetic changes as we age.

Remember that all patients and cancers are different. Be sure to take the time to speak with your doctor about your specific case and your concerns. Comprehensive Hematology Oncology has a dedicated team of doctors, nurses and councilors ready to help you with extensive knowledge and compassionate care.