By Anita Iyer
WHAT IS CANCER
The word cancer actually encompasses many diseases, not one. In fact, there are more than 100 types of diseases known collectively as cancer. What they all have in common is the uncontrollable growth and division of cells, tiny units that make up all living things.
Normal body cells cultivate and divide over a period of time until they eventually die. But cancerous cells continue to grow and divide infinitely. Eventually, they gather to form tumors. Tumors are lumps that can interfere with the body’s normal processes. Sometimes cells from a tumor break away and spread to a different tissue or organ. This is called metastasis.
As terrifying as all this sounds, most cancers can be treated and controlled, if detected early. Thus, many people with cancer can recover to lead normal lives.
CAUSES OF CANCER
No one really knows why cancer grows in specific people. Scientists and researchers are working to learn why some people get cancer and others do not. Inevitably, a better understanding of the causes of cancer will aid in the development of more effective treatment and preventative interventions. There are some genetic, environmental and behavioral factors that are known to play a role in making people more susceptible to developing certain types of cancer.
Some people may have a genetic predisposition to developing cancer. For example, if a close relative has had cancer of the breast or the colon, you may be more likely to inherit the tendency to develop those cancers, even though you may never actually get them.
Several behavioral and environmental triggers can cause changes in the body’s cells that push them into a cancerous state. For example, smoking is known to increase the risk of lung cancer. Too much exposure to the sun can increase the risk of skin cancer. These types of triggers act on the body slowly over time, so the cancers that may result from them don’t show up until a person is an adult. That’s one reason why teens don’t get the same types of cancers as adults do.
Doctors do know for sure that cancer itself is not contagious, so you don’t have to worry about catching it from someone else or spreading it to another person (although people with certain infectious diseases such as AIDS or hepatitis are more vulnerable to certain cancers). Cancer is also never a person’s fault. It’s simply not true that a person may have done something wrong to get the disease.
CANCERS THAT AFFECT TEENS
Although the cases of cancer in teens is relatively low, there are some types of cancer that are more likely to affect teenagers and young adults.
Osteosarcomas are a type of bone cancer that often appear during growth spurts and tend to be more common in those taller than average. There is no known cause of osteosarcomas.
Leukemia is one of the most common cancers in childhood and is when there is an increased number of immature or abnormal white blood cells produced by the bone marrow. This disrupts normal cell activity in the body and reduces the body’s ability to produce normal blood cells. The survival rate for leukemia patients is extremely high, with an effective treatment plan in place.
Brain tumors can be benign or malignant, both of which can be fatal to the patient. A benign brain tumor can grow and increase the pressure inside the skull thus applying pressure on certain areas of the brain, reducing function and possibly leading to death. Whilst a malignant tumor can spread to other organs and disrupt normal body systems, many cases of brain tumors can be cured, but it is dependent on the location and size of the tumor that needs to be surgically removed and how early it is detected.
SIGNS OF CANCER
The first sign of cancer is a symptom – a signal that something is wrong. There are many diverse signs that a person may have cancer, just as there are many different forms of the disease. A few of the more common symptoms of cancer include:
• Extreme exhaustion or Headaches
• Swelling or lumps in certain parts of the body, such as the abdomen or neck
• Blurred vision
• Problems with walking or balance
• Infections or unusual bleeding
Only you know how your body works and what you feel like when you’re healthy. If you haven’t been feeling well, it’s better to tell an adult who can make sure that you see a doctor who will evaluate your symptoms. Cancer, like most illnesses, is easier to treat when it’s detected early, so when in doubt, check it out.
If a doctor suspects that a person has cancer, he or she will order various tests. These might include blood tests, (in which doctors scrutinize blood cells under a microscope to look for abnormalities), X-rays, or an MRI, (a scanning technique that can be used to detect tumors). Doctors also often use a biopsy to diagnose cancer. In this procedure, a doctor removes a small tissue sample to examine it for cancer cells.
Most cancers can be treated, especially the types of cancers teens are likely to get, if detected early. The number of people who overcome cancer goes up every year because of new cancer treatments.
There are three widespread methods for treating cancer: surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. As cancer is different in each patient, each person’s treatment plan will be individually designed for him or her. A person with cancer may undergo any one of these treatments or a combination of them. A doctor who specializes in treating people with cancer is called an Oncologist.
Surgery takes away cancerous tissue. Depending on the location of a person’s cancer, surgery can be simple or complex, so the operation may be an outpatient procedure (where a person is in and out of the hospital on the same day) or may require that the person stay in the hospital. Generally, the surgeon removes the cancerous tissue along with a small amount of the healthy tissue surrounding it to make sure that all the cancer is removed and has not spread.
The treatment of cancer using medication is called chemotherapy. Specific cancers respond well to chemotherapy, which can often be given on an outpatient basis. A person who is having chemotherapy may experience nausea, fatigue, hair loss, or other side effects. Some of these side effects happen because chemotherapy medicines may destroy some healthy cells in the process of getting rid of the malignant cells. In time, these healthy cells will start to grow again and most of the side effects will disappear.
Radiation, or radiotherapy, is an additional method of treating cancer. A person being treated with radiotherapy, will most likely be treated by a radiation oncologist, someone who specializes in using radiation to kill cancer cells. Radiotherapy machines deliver powerful X-rays or high-energy electrons to the part of a person’s body that is affected by cancer. After repeated doses of high levels of radiation, many cancerous tumors shrink or disappear.
Radiation therapy is generally painless, but there may be some side effects. Side effects of radiation therapy may include fatigue, nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea. Some patients complain that the area of skin that’s irradiated feels sunburnt, but most of these side effects are temporary.
DEALING WITH CANCER
Dealing with cancer and cancer treatments can disrupt a person’s life for a while. People with cancer often need support in various aspects of their life. For example, teens with cancer may need the help of a home tutor to get schoolwork done and adults with cancer may need help with housework or their jobs. Various people talk to therapists or professional counsellors about the emotional side of dealing with a health problem.
You may hear doctors talk about a prognosis for a person with cancer. A prognosis is an estimate of how well that person’s treatment is working and how likely it is that the cancer will come back.
Subsequent to surgery or treatment with radiation or chemotherapy, a doctor will do tests to see if the cancer is still there. If the signs and symptoms of the cancer lessen or disappear, then that person is in what’s called remission. Sometimes, additional treatment, such as chemotherapy, might be needed for a while to keep a person in remission and to keep cancer cells from coming back.
Anita Iyer is a Medical Student & Research Volunteer.