What is cancer?

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

Millions of people are diagnosed with cancer every year, but what is cancer and what causes it to happen?

Our bodies are made up of billions and billions of tiny little units called cells. Many die every day when they get old or damaged, so they need to be replaced by brand new ones. A cell is able to make a copy of itself to take the place of those that have died. Deoxyribonucleic acid – or just DNA – is the material inside of cells that carefully controls how and when they divide. Sometimes a DNA molecule mutates, or changes, and loses control of the division process. Instead of making only one copy of itself, the cell can divide over and over again, where it is now called a cancer cell. The worst part is that these copies also divide over and over again at faster speeds than normal cells. Before you know it, there is a huge clump of cells growing inside your body, called a tumor.

laser treatment for cancer
Photodynamic therapy (PDT) is a procedure to treat cancer. Patients are injected with a photosensitizer which is a light sensitive drug selectively retained by cancer cells. When exposed to laser light, the photosensitizer in the cancer cells produces a toxic reaction which destroys the tumor. (Photo description courtesy of National Cancer Institute on Wikipedia)

Well, we grow every day! What’s so bad about having a few cells grow along with us? The problem is that unlike regular cells, these uncontrollable cells don’t die, they just grow bigger and bigger! It’s a scary thing to think about because some cancer cells start growing anywhere and spread to the rest of the body. Additionally, there is only so much room inside us and since tumors only get larger, they press up against the rest of our bodies. This pressure can be very painful.

There is no cure for cancer, but there are 4 main types of treatments: chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, and biologic therapies. Chemotherapy works by attacking cells that divide quickly, like cancer cells, and can come in the form of a pill or a shot. In surgery, skilled doctors open up a person’s body and remove the harmful clumps of cells. Radiation uses different electronic and magnetic rays to destroy the DNA inside of cancer cells to kill them. Finally, biologic therapy helps the body’s immune system attack cancerous cells. None of these treatments are fast or easy. Oftentimes, patients experience hair loss, vomiting, loss of appetite, and nausea. Also, some individuals get sick quickly and bruise more easily.

Cancer affects both males and females of all ages. If caught in the early stages, there is a stronger chance of killing cancer, so be sure to check with your doctor regularly to make sure your body is healthy!

Images courtesy of the National Cancer Institute and National Institutes of Health.