Cancer: An Overview

Cancer. Just the word itself can make even the bravest soul afraid. Cancer, more than any other illness, makes one feel his or her own mortality. There are many unanswered questions surrounding this disease.


Cancer is not a single disease, however, but rather a group of more than 100. Cancer occurs when cells keep growing, without the usual control. The cells form extra tissue, called a mass or tumor, and then invade other tissues or organs.

Anyone, of any age, can get cancer, but most types are common in people over 40. The most common type of cancer is skin cancer. Prostate cancer is the leading cause of cancer in men, while breast cancer is most common in women. However, lung cancer is the major cause of death from cancer in the United States. Young people and children are more likely to have brain cancer or leukemia.

Although the causes of cancer are not known, some facts about cancer are recognized. First, cancer develops over a long period of time, so an injury or stressful event does not immediately cause cancer. Also, cancer is not contagious, although some viruses may increase the risk of developing certain cancer.

Cancer develops as a result of many risk factors based on the environment, lifestyle and heredity. Some people are more sensitive to risk factors than others.

Some risk factors, like tobacco, alcohol, a high amount of radiation, or carcinogens, can be avoided, while others, like age and heredity, cannot. But, people at risk can protect themselves by getting regular checkups, doing self-exams and living a healthy lifestyle.

Prevention of Cancer:

Since the early 1980's, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) has been conducting a diet, nutrition and cancer prevention research program. Through this research, scientists have discovered that certain compounds in fruits, vegetables and cereal grains interfere with cancer development in cells grown in the laboratory.

Scientists have also found that groups of people who eat large amounts of vegetables and fruits have a lower risk of cancers of the esophagus, mouth, stomach, colon, rectum, lung, prostate and larynx.

In 1991, NCI, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Public Health Service started the "Five a Day for Better Health Program." The purpose of this program is to teach Americans to eat five or more servings of vegetables and fruit each day as part of a low-fat, high-fiber diet.

A serving is considered:

Fruit and vegetables are a better source of vitamins and minerals than supplements, many of which may be important in preventing cancer. Vitamin A can be obtained from apricots, cantaloupe, carrots, romaine lettuce, spinach and sweet potatoes. Broccoli, cantaloupe, grapefruit, plums, strawberries, and watermelon are high in vitamin C. Apples, bananas, carrots, cherries, dates, raspberries, spinach and sweet potatoes are all a source of fiber.

Tobacco use is the single most preventable cause of death in the United States. This includes smoking, chewing (including snuff), and being exposed to second-hand smoke. Smoking causes more than 85 percent of all lung cancer deaths. The risk of cancer increases with the number of cigarettes smoked. Also, smokers are more likely to develop other types of cancer besides lung cancer, such as oral cancer and cancers of the esophagus, bladder, larynx, kidney, pancreas and cervix. When a person quits smoking, the risk of cancer continues to decrease the longer that person is not smoking.

Early detection can also help prevent cancer. Some cancers can be detected in the early, pre-cancerous stage with blood tests, physical exams or other tests. By detecting early changes in the tissues, the cancer (or pre-cancer) can be removed or treated before it has a chance to spread. Genetic tests can determine a high risk for certain cancers that seem to occur in families, allowing the person at risk to schedule more frequent physical exams and make the necessary lifestyle changes to decrease the risk.

This has been an overview of cancer. Future articles will give more detailed information about prevention, detection and treatment of various cancers. Supportive care for patients and their families will also be addressed.

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