What is cancer?

Cancer is a disease in which cells in some parts of the body grow uncontrollably and abnormally, and can spread to the other parts of the body. It starts when something is wrong with the cell division process. This leads to development of abnormal cells that are not regulated by our bodies. Cancer can develop from any part of the body and it is named depending on the part of the body it develops from. For instance, cancer developing from the breast is known as breast cancer and it can spread to other parts of the body.

We associate ‘cancer’ with suffering and death yet some cancers, with early diagnosis and good follow up have a better survival rate in comparison to some other illnesses. Cancer is not one illness or diagnosis but a group of conditions with prognosis ranging from very good (98% 10 year survival rate for testicular cancer) to very poor (21% 1 year survival rate for pancreatic cancer)

Categories of cancer

Cancers are classified and named after the cells and tissues that they originate from. Then they can be described depending on the grades and stage (what parts of the body they have spread to) The main classification used is as follows

Carcinomas– this originate from the cells that cover most body parts. This cells are known as epithelial cells. They are common cancers as epithelial cells are abundant within our bodies. This cancers will include those that affect the skin and gastrointestinal tract among others

Sarcomasthis are cancers that develop from supportive tissues eg bones, muscles, cartilage or fat.

Mixed type cancers- this are cancers that have a mixture of  cell origins. They can have  two or more cell types hence cannot be differentiated as one type or another.

Myeloma This type of blood cancer affects plasma cells, which are types of white blood cells. Cancerous plasma cells accumulate in the bone marrow, crowding out the healthy cells.

LymphomaThis is a type of blood cancer that develops from lymphocytes, which can be T cells or B cells. These are white blood cells that help to fight disease causing microorganisms. Abnormal lymphocytes build up in lymph nodes and vessels.

Leukemia – It develops from the blood-forming tissue of the bone marrow. Large numbers of abnormal white blood cells build up in the blood and bone marrow, crowding out the normal blood cells. Low level of normal blood cells makes it harder for the body to get oxygen to its tissues..

What causes cancer?

Cancer cells develop because of multiple changes in the genes of the normal cells. These changes can be attributed to many factors that include lifestyle habits, exposure to cancer causing agents and inherited genes.

Exposure to harmful substances in the environment such as chemicals in tobacco smoke and ultraviolet rays from the sun increases the chances of normal body cells undergoing mutation, thus developing cancer cells.

The body normally eliminates cells with damaged DNA before they turn cancerous. But the body’s ability to do so goes down as we age. This is part of the reason why there is a higher risk of cancer later in life. Each person’s cancer has a unique combination of genetic changes. As the cancer continues to grow, additional changes do occur. Even within the same tumor, different cells may have different genetic changes.

What are the symptoms of cancer?

Signs and symptoms of cancer vary with respect to which part of the body is affected. The following are general symptoms of cancer, but not necessarily specific to cancer;

  • Discomfort after eating and persistent indigestion.
  • Persistent cough and trouble in breathing.
  • Changes in the skin such as yellowing, darkening or sore that never heal.
  • Persistent fevers and night sweats.
  • Weight changes.
  • Difficulty in swallowing food.
  • Change in bowel habits

Risk factors of cancer.

The following are the factors increasing the risk of one getting cancer;

  1. Age – Cancer can take decades to develop. That’s why most people diagnosed with cancer are 65 or older. While it’s more common in older adults, cancer isn’t exclusively an adult disease — cancer can be diagnosed at any age.
  2. Certain lifestyle choices are known to increase your risk of cancer. Smoking, drinking more than one drink a day for women and up to two drinks a day for men, excessive exposure to the sun or frequent blistering sunburns, being obese, and having unsafe sex can contribute to cancer.
  3. Some chronic health conditions, such as ulcerative colitis, can markedly increase your risk of developing certain cancers. Talk to your doctor about your risk.
  4. The environment around you may contain harmful chemicals that can increase your risk of cancer. Even if you don’t smoke, you might inhale secondhand smoke if you go where people are smoking or if you live with someone who smokes. Chemicals in your home or workplace, such as asbestos and benzene, also are associated with an increased risk of cancer.
  5. Family history – Only a small portion of cancers are due to an inherited condition. If cancer is common in your family, it’s possible that mutations are being passed from one generation to the next. You might be a candidate for genetic testing to see whether you have inherited mutations that might increase your risk of certain cancers.

Prevention of cancer

Cancer can be prevented in many ways, touching on lifestyle and habits. The following are some of the ways through which you can prevent cancer.

  1. Quit smoking –smoking is linked to several types of cancer. People who smoke can only prevent it when they stop smoking.
  2. Avoid excessive exposure to sunlight – Ultraviolet rays from the sun are harmful and are known to cause skin cancer, upon excessive exposure. Limit your sun exposure by staying in the shade, wearing protective clothing or applying sunscreen.
  3. Eat a healthy diet – Choose a diet rich in fruits and vegetables. Select whole grains and lean proteins. Limit your intake of processed meats.
  4. Exercise most days of the week. Regular exercise is linked to a lower risk of cancer. Aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week. If you haven’t been exercising regularly, start out slowly and work your way up to 30 minutes or longer.
  5. Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight or obese may increase your risk of cancer. Work to achieve and maintain a healthy weight through a combination of a healthy diet and regular exercise.
  6. Schedule cancer screening exams; there are recommended number of times you need to have a screening done, mostly depending of risk factors that you are exposed to. Ask your doctor about this.

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