The body is made up of a variety of different types of cells. These cells grow and divide in a controlled way to produce more cells as they are needed to keep the body healthy. When cells become old or damaged, they die and are replaced with new cells. But sometimes this process goes wrong: the genetic material (DNA) of a cell can become damaged or altered, producing mutations that affect normal cell growth and division. When this happens, cells do not die when they should and new cells form when the body does not need them. The extra cells may form a mass of tissue called a tumor.
Not all tumors are cancerous; tumors can be benign or malignant:
Benign tumors aren't cancerous. They can often be removed, and, in most cases, they do not come back. Cells in benign tumors do not spread to other parts of the body.
Malignant tumors are cancerous. Cells in these tumors 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.
Some cancers do not form tumors. For example, leukemia is a cancer of the bone marrow and blood.
• Carcinoma - cancer that begins in the skin or in tissues that line or cover internal organs.
• Sarcoma - cancer that begins in bone, cartilage, fat, muscle, blood vessels, or other connective or supportive tissue.
• Leukemia - cancer that starts in blood-forming tissue such as the bone marrow and causes large numbers of abnormal blood cells to be produced and enter the blood.
• Lymphoma and Myeloma - cancers that begin in the cells of the immune system.
• Central Nervous System Cancers - cancers that begin in the tissues of the brain and spinal cord.
Most cancers can be treated and some cured, depending on the specific type, location, and stage. Once diagnosed, cancer is usually treated with a combination of surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. As research develops, treatments are becoming more specific for different varieties of cancer. There has been significant progress in the development of targeted therapy drugs that act specifically on detectable molecular abnormalities in certain tumors, and which minimize damage to normal cells. The prognosis of cancer patients is most influenced by the type of cancer, as well as the stage, or extent of the disease. In addition, histologic grading and the presence of specific molecular markers can also be useful in establishing prognosis, as well as in determining individual treatments.
Cancer has a reputation for being a deadly disease. While this certainly applies to certain particular types, the truths behind the historical connotations of cancer are increasingly being overturned by advances in medical care. Some types of cancer have a prognosis that is substantially better than nonmalignant diseases such as heart failure and stroke. Progressive and disseminated malignant disease has a substantial impact on a cancer patient's quality of life, and many cancer treatments (such as chemotherapy) may have severe side-effects. In the advanced stages of cancer, many patients need extensive care, affecting family members and friends. Palliative care solutions may include permanent or "respite" hospice nursing.
The three most common types of cancer treatment are surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy. Treatment is aimed at removing the cancer cells or destroying them in the body with medicines or other agents.
Your doctor, or a team of doctors, will help you understand your options and will recommend options for treatment. You may not have a choice in the treatment. Many factors are involved, including the stage that your cancer is in, what organs are affected, and the type of cancer that you have. Some cancers, such as skin cancer, are easier to treat than others. Your age and health, as well as the potential side effects of treatment, may also be factors in how much control you have over your treatment plan.
Cancer treatment can be very complex. What kind of cancer you have, the stage that it's in, and the treatment program you go through affects what health care professionals you see.
Surgery can be very successful in treating some kinds of cancer, but it isn't an option for all people. If the cancer is in the form of a malignant tumor and the tumor is in one place (localized), it may be possible to safely "cut out" the tumor and any surrounding affected tissue. Surgery may not be possible if the cancer has spread to other areas of the body or if the tumor cannot be removed without damaging vital organs, such as the liver or brain.
Radiotherapy uses radiation — in the form of a special kind of x-ray, gamma rays or electrons — to damage cancer cells so that they can't multiply. There is usually no pain during therapy. Radiotherapy may sometimes be the only treatment needed, or it may be used with other therapies, such as surgery. A combination of surgery and radiotherapy may be used for tumors that grow in one place.
Chemotherapy uses medicines to attack the cancer cells. Just the word "chemotherapy" can cause a lot of fear because the side effects can be severe. However, not all people experience severe side effects. The side effects of chemotherapy can often be reduced with other medicines. Chemotherapy is usually used when the cancer has spread to other areas in the body. Chemotherapy can also be used in combination with surgery and radiation. Sometimes the tumor is surgically removed and then chemotherapy is used to make sure all the cancer cells are killed.
Another kind of treatment is biological therapy. This treatment uses proteins to trigger the body's immune system to produce more white blood cells (or lymphocytes). Biological therapy can also be used in combination with surgery, radiation therapy or chemotherapy. Hormone therapy is sometimes used to treat breast or prostate cancer. The hormone estrogen can make breast cancer tumors grow faster. Similarly, the hormone testosterone can make cancerous tumors in the prostate grow faster. Drugs that contain other hormones may be used to block the effects of estrogen and testosterone. In other cases, surgery to remove the ovaries or the testicles may be used. Removing these organs reduces the amount of estrogen or testosterone in the body. Hormone therapy is often used in addition to chemotherapy or radiotherapy. Other specialized treatments may be available. Your doctor may talk to you about these treatments if they are an option.
There are different types of caregivers. Some are family members, while others are friends. Every situation is different. So there are different ways to give care. There isn't one way that works best. Caregiving can mean helping with day-to-day activities such as doctor visits or preparing food. But it can also happen long-distance. You may have to coordinate care and services for your loved one by phone. Caregiving can also mean giving emotional and spiritual support. You may be helping your loved one cope and work through the many feelings that come up at this time. Talking, listening, and just being there are some of the most important things you can do. Giving care and support during this challenging time isn't easy. The natural response of most caregivers is to put their own feelings and needs aside. They try to focus on the person with cancer and the many tasks of caregiving. This may be fine for a short time, but it can be hard to keep up for a long time and it's not good for your health. If you don't take care of yourself, you won't be able to take care of others. It's important for everyone that you give care to you.
The following online resources are provided by the National Cancer Institute:
• When Someone You Love Is Being Treated for Cancer
• When Your Parent Has Cancer: A Guide for Teens
• When Your Brother or Sister Has Cancer: A Guide for Teens
• Facing Forward: When Someone You Love Has Completed Cancer Treatment
• When Someone You Love Has Advanced Cancer: Support for Caregivers
• Caring for the Caregiver
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