Our body is made up of cells. All cancers begin in cells, which are the fundamental unit of life. To understand cancer, it's useful to know what happens when normal cells become cancer cells.

Your body is made up of several types of cells. These cells grow and produce more cells in a well-controlled manner, as they are needed to keep the body healthy. As cells become older or damaged, they die and are replaced with new cells. However, due to certain reasons this normal condition is interrupted, which leads to an abnormal behavior by the cells, typically in one part/organ of the body, where the cells continue to multiply and live beyond their lifespan. These are referred to as the 'cancerous cells.'

The term 'cancer' is used to describe a medical condition, where there is:

  • Abnormal and uncontrolled multiplication of the body cells
  • Genesis is typically in one organ/part of the body
  • These mutant cells can migrate and invade other parts of the body through blood and lymph
  • Manifestation of the disease is the form of a tumour – a group of mutant cells that form a tissue
  • These can affect all living cells in the body and at all ages in both genders
  • The cause is multi-factorial and the disease process differs at different sites

'Cancer' is not a single disease but refers to a group of diseases which share similar characteristics. Doctors classify cancer on the basis of the tissue from where it originates. For example, the term 'carcinoma' is used for the cancer that originates from the skin, or in tissues that line or cover the internal organs. The term 'leukemia' is used for the cancer that starts in the blood, forming a tissue in the bone marrow and causing abnormal blood cells to be produced, which enter the bloodstream.
Factors such as tobacco consumption, environmental exposures to carcinogens, certain infections as well as genetic predisposition also play an important role.

HOW DOES CANCER START?

Cancer starts when the genetic material (DNA) of a cell can become damaged or changed, producing changes known as mutations, which affect normal cell growth and division. It is not always clear as to what causes mutations. Some mutations are inherited, some may be due to the diet, and others might be caused by exposure to environment factors, which are referred to as 'carcinogens', such as - certain chemicals, tobacco, cigarette smoke, etc. When this occurs, cells do not obey the normal life cycle, so the old/damaged cells do not die, but new ones are still formed leading to the accumulation of a large number of cells not required by the body. These excess cells form a mass of tissue, which is called a 'tumour.'

However, every tumour may not be cancerous. The medical terms to differentiate between a tumour and a cancerous tumor are - 'benign' and 'malignant.'

A tumour that is not cancerous is referred to as 'benign' tumour, and this:

  • Can often be surgically removed
  • In most cases rarely there is a recurrence of the condition after surgery
  • Remains 'contained' within its organ of genesis
  • Does not invade/spread to other organs/part of the body

MALIGNANT TUMOURS ARE CANCEROUS

  • Cells in these tumours can invade nearby tissues and spread to other parts of the body
  • The spread of cancer from one part of the body to another is called 'metastasis'

Most cancers are named after the organ or type of cell in which they originate. For example, cancer that begins in the stomach is called stomach cancer. The extent of the growth of cells lies in the originating tissue and its invasion to nearby lymph nodes and its spread to distant organs determines the seriousness, the impact and the line of treatment of the disease. This assessment is referred to as 'staging' of the cancer. Usually cancer of the blood and bone marrow such as leukemia do not form tumours.

TOP 10 WAYS TO PREVENT CANCER

Cancer, either you have had it, will develop it at some time, or know someone who has had it or has it. Whether we like it or not, cancer affects each one of us directly or indirectly. Preventing cancer is easier than you may think. Through simple lifestyle changes, we can reduce our risk of developing many types of cancers.

Avoid smoking, whether it be actual smoking or secondhand smoke, we hear a dozen times a day how bad cigarettes are for us.They also increase the risk of being diagnosed with lung cancer. Smoking is the most significant risk factor for cancers, and this can be reduced. Did you know that smoking can increase your risk of many other cancers?

Practice sun safety and recognise when skin changes occur: Skin cancer is becoming more common, especially among young people. Wear sunscreen when outdoors, even if it is shady, and try to avoid the outdoors during the sun's peak time, which is 10 am - 2 pm. Knowing your skin's moles and spots is essential. Any changes you notice need to be reported to your doctor as soon as possible.

Eat fruits and veggies: they are rich in antioxidants which help repair our damaged cells. Green veggies, orange and yellow fruits, and other vegetables are your best bet.

Watch the meats you eat, especially smoked or cured foods: Research suggests that a diet high in animal fat can lead to the development of certain cancers. A diet high in smoked foods, salted fish and meat, and pickled vegetables increases your risk factor for cancer.

Limit your alcohol intake: Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol regularly increases your risk factor for cancer. Studies suggest that men who consume 2 alcoholic drinks per day and women who have 1 alcoholic drink per day, significantly increase their risk factors for certain types of cancer.

Exercise for cancer prevention: Being overweight greatly increases your risk factor for developing cancer. So, exercising to maintain or reaching your ideal weight is one of the best defenses against cancer.

Know your personal and family history of cancer: Research tells us that some types of cancers can be genetic. Knowing your family history of cancer can help you make more informed decisions about your healthcare. It can also aid in genetic testing and counselling, to assist you in finding out if you carry a mutated gene that increases your risk factor for cancer.

Know what chemicals you are being exposed to in your work environment. If you are exposed to fumes, dust, chemicals, etc. in the workplace, you have a right to know what you are being exposed to. Gasoline, diesel exhaust, arsenic, beryllium, vinyl chloride, nickel chromates, coal products, mustard gas, and chloromethyl ethers are all carcinogens and can be found in some work environments. Talk to your employer about limiting exposure.

Practice safe sex: Unsafe sex can result in the infection of the HPV virus, a known cause for cervical cancer and a risk factor for many other cancers. HPV is a virus transmitted through sexual intercourse.

Be sure to keep up on screening tests like the Pap, mammograms, and Dress. Make sure you have regular screening tests like the Pap smear and mammogram if you are a woman, and a DRE (Digital Rectal Exam) if you are a man. The Pap and DRE can detect cellular changes before they become cancerous, and the mammogram may be able to detect breast cancer early. A rectal exam should be part of a woman's yearly gynaec exam.