What is cancer?

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Cancer is a disease affecting hundreds of thousands of people globally and it is one of the most common reasons for death in the world today. What is particularly of concern is how cancer is increasing in incidence among children and younger adults. Perhaps the most mysterious aspect of cancer is how the disease cannot be assigned to a specific risk-group. Cancer does not distinguish between old or young, man or woman, nor a particular race or nationality. The disease can affect anyone, and what leaves physicians and researchers with a great challenge, is the lack of knowledge regarding the exact cause of cancer. Research has illuminated some aspects such as lifestyle choices and genetics as playing an important role for the development of cancer, but the exact mechanism, by which cancer specifically and ultimately occurs, is still a mystery to be solved.

Yet, what is cancer? How can this disease be so deadly and go undetected in our bodies for years?

Cancer is literally an uncontrolled growth of cells containing impaired genetic material. Normally, our body is able to fight suddenly occurring damages or impairments of the genetic material, either by repairing these impairments or completely destroying the cells that contain impaired genetic material. When the cell-repairing or cell-destroying functions of the body are knocked out, the body can no longer control the growth and division of cells containing damaged genetic material. The impairments themselves often cause increased growth and divisions of the cells, ultimately leading to cancer.

When cells are given the opportunity to grow and divide uncontrollably, they damage surrounding tissue causing harm to otherwise healthy structures in the body. When healthy tissues are harmed by the aggressively growing and dividing cancer-cells, the normal functioning of these tissues are threatened, leading to reduced effectiveness of the organ in which the cancer-cells are growing.

Yet, what makes cancer cells even more deadly is their ability to excrete signals that cause irritation to the tissue, make them invisible to the immune system, and increase the blood supply to their own growth. As cancer-cells grow, the cancer-symptoms become more overwhelming and noticeable. General symptoms of any kind of cancer are nausea, unintended weight loss, constant tiredness and sudden onsets of fever.

Our knowledge regarding cancer is increasing with time but the treatment options in general are still very limited. However, statistics show that management of cancer and the overall five-year-survival percentage is increasing. This is due to the increased awareness of cancer and thereby a rise in early cancer detection. Although the management of most cancers are slowly progressing, the most important determinant for cancer-management and treatment is early detection. The sooner the cancer is detected, the better the treatment opportunities.

By Adile Orhan

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