What is Cancer?

The human body is made up of billions of cells. Groups of cells perform a specific function. All cancers are different. Even the same type of cancer may behave differently in different people.

Normally cells die and are replaced in an orderly fashion. This results in an appropriate number of cells, organized and working properly to perform a specific function.

Occasionally however, cells are replaced in an uncontrolled way and may lack the organization needed for normal function. Abnormal growth of cells is called a mass or a tumor. There are two kinds of tumors: benign [non-cancerous] and malignant [cancer].

Because of their larger size, all masses or tumors can grow into normal areas or squeeze nearby tissues and organs. This can cause pain and interfere with normal function.

Cancerous tumors attack nearby cells and destroy them Cancer cells can also get into body fluids which allows the cells to spread to other parts of the body. This process is called metastasis.

The body fluids that can carry cancer cells are the blood and the lymph. You know about blood and blood vessels, but the lymph might not be familiar to you. Lymph is a nearly clear fluid that drains waste from cells. This fluid travels through vessels and small bean-shaped structures called lymph nodes. One function of the lymph nodes is to filter unwanted substances out of the fluid, like bacteria or cancer cells. However, if there are too many cancer cells, the nodes cannot remove all of them and the cancer spreads.

There are more than 100 different types of cancer, and they all behave differently. Among American men, the most common cancer is prostate cancer and the second most common is lung cancer. Among American women, the most common cancer is breast cancer, and the second most common is lung cancer. However, lung cancer will kill more men and women than prostate or breast cancer will.

Your care must be individualized. Just because your friend or neighbor got one kind of treatment, or had some particular side effect, that does not mean that you will have the same thing, even if you have the same kind of cancer. There are 3 main methods for treating cancer: surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy. You may get one, two, or all three of these treatments, in any combination. We decide this based on many factors - patient or physician choice, type of cancer, how far the cancer has spread if at all, and how the cancer behaves. Make sure to ask any questions you have about your treatment. It is important to us that you understand why we have chosen the particular treatment that you are going to receive.