Answering your Questions: What is Cancer?

As an Oncologist, many patients who I see have cancer. There are several different types of cancer, and with medical advances, we now know that no two cancers are ever exactly alike. They have different protein expressions, behaviors even if starting in the same organ. But, before understanding the details of cancer, it’s important to understand the basics.


What is Cancer?

Most simply, cancer cells are cells that grow out of control and can invade other structures (organs, vessels, etc). Because cancer cells are less specialized than normal cells, they often interrupt normal functioning of the cells that they are trying to take over. These cancer cells also don’t know when to stop growing or to die off so that the body does not have excess cells and, because they don’t get a signal directing their natural death, the cancer cells just continue to multiply. Cancer cells can even evade the immune system that protects the body from infection, making it even harder to detect cancer until it causes major issues such as pain, weight loss, or extreme fatigue. 


How do we know what type of cancer someone has?

Cancer is classified based on the organ in which it started and, even if it spreads beyond that organ, it most often continues to appear similar to the starting structure when examined under a microscope. The starting place for cancer is determined by a pathologist, who looks at the cancer cells under the microscope and uses laboratory techniques to determine which normal cells of the body the cancer cells most resemble. For example, if lung cancer starts in the lung, but then spreads to the liver and you remove a piece of the liver to examine it under the microscope, it will still look like lung tissue that has just moved to the liver. In this case, you would say that someone has lung cancer that has spread to the liver, not lung and liver cancer. Because review of the cells are so important, a biopsy or removal of a small piece of the cancer is essential for a diagnosis.


How is cancer treated?

Treatment of each cancer is very individualized and depends on size, location, and type, among many other factors. The general modalities used to treat cancer include surgery (cutting it out), chemotherapy (treating it with strong drugs), immunotherapy (using the immune system to attack the cancer), or radiation (like laser beams to shrink it).


The combination of these treatments needs to be individualized for each patient. No two patients are alike and no two cancer treatments should be exactly the same. Call or Book Online today and visit us at the Coastal Hematology & Oncology Center today to understand more about cancer and, if needed, to identify a treatment plan that is right for you.

Jessica Taff MD Dr. Jessica Taff is a triple board certified Medical Oncologist, Hematologist, and Internist. She is founder of the Coastal Hematology & Oncology Center.

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