What is cancer?
Cancer is an abnormal growth of the body’s own cells. That is, normal cells in your body decide to “mutiny” and “selfishly” take over the organ or tissue they are normally a part of, with wild uncontrolled growth. Cancer occurs when our normal cells become altered at the genetic and biochemical level in a way that permits them to divide into many more cells than would normally be present in that tissue.
Cancer, often called a neoplasm (of which carcinomas are the most common type), is a malignant tumor of potentially unlimited growth that expands by invasion into the surrounding area. It might eventually break off and enter the blood stream and be carried to other parts of the body. When it spreads to other parts of the body, it is called metastatic cancer. Most cancer deaths are due to metastatic disease.
Cancer is not an infectious or contagious disease like the flu, a common cold, or a bacterial infection. You can’t catch it from a patient’s handshake or sneeze. Cancer is really a collection of many different diseases under a single heading. Some forms of cancer, but not all, are heritable. Some, but not all, forms of cancer are caused by exposure to chemicals, or radiation, or viruses. And, different types of cancer are caused by different genetic and environmental factors.
Genetics or Environment?
A variety of factors determine whether a normal cell will become altered into a tumor cell. There are two major categories of factors: Genetics and Environment.
Genetic factors mean the biochemical aspects of our bodies that are directly determined by the genes you have received from your parents and ancestors. Genes are a form of information stored in a molecule called DNA, within the nucleus of the cell. If the DNA responsible for controlling cell division is altered or mutated in a specific way, the altered DNA messes up the normal regulation of the cell’s doubling process, thereby resulting in the formation a cancer cell that keeps dividing when it should normally be merely “hanging out”. This process results in the formation of tumors.
Some forms of cancer can be inherited from your ancestors. In these cases, the gene combination the individual inherited has an increased tendency to develop into a specific form of cancer.
Some genetic effects are dominant, while others are recessive. Normal cells have two copies of each gene. If the effects of a trait are dominant, only one copy of the gene (or allele) is sufficient to cause the trait. A recessive trait requires two copies of the gene to exhibit the effects.
Environmental factors include certain types of radiation, chemicals, and viruses. Although not all forms of radiation cause cancer (e.g. radio waves), the types of radiation, which are harmful, include X-rays, radioactive chemicals (e.g. radon, uranium, plutonium, etc.), and ultraviolet light in sunlight or tanning lamps (black lights).
These factors usually directly mutate the DNA within the cell’s nucleus. Some chemicals can cause cancer. The most prominent examples of carcinogenic chemicals are those found in tobacco smoke and asbestos used in insulation or as a fire retardant. When smoked or chewed, tobacco releases carcinogenic compounds into your body.
These compounds damage DNA. Viruses may also play a role in cancer formation. However, only a few types of viruses are known at present to contribute to human cancer. Examples include papilloma viruses, which cause warts (benign skin tumors) or cancers of the cervix or penis. Infection with viral hepatitis can result later in liver cancer and retroviruses such as HIV and HTLV can often result in the formation of Kaposi’s sarcoma or leukemia/lymphoma.
At a genetic and biochemical level, mutations occur in two (or more) types of regulatory genes. In one case, the mutation is analagous to pushing down the accelerator of an automobile, to speed up cell division. And in the other case a mutation can damage the automobile’s brake system, which regulates the speed of cell division. The “brake-like” genes are often referred to as tumor-suppressor genes. Either process can result in cancer.
If a chemical is reported to be carcinogenic, what does this mean to me?
We are often informed in the news or magazines about how certain chemicals cause cancer. Some of them genuinely do cause cancer in humans!
However, some of the tests performed in laboratories or extapolated by epidemiologists may be misleading and over-interpreted. For instance, if very high amounts of the chemicals are needed for a very long period of time to produce a tumor in an experiment, then the chemicals will likely not be carcinogenic in either small amounts or if taken for only a short period of time.
There are some highly carcinogenic agents that should be avoided, whereas other, less dangerous chemicals may be consumed intentionally or unintentionally without incurring a great risk of cancer formation.
How can cancer be prevented?
Listed below are10 steps that one can take to prevent or reduce the risk of cancer. One must be mindful that if you have had a particularly risky lifestyle, for instance a chain smoker who frequently is sunburned, altering your habits might not necessarily prevent cancer from forming.
You may not be able to “set back the clock” on the DNA damage that has already been done, but you can alter your lifestyle and possibly halt the progression of damage.
10 Steps to Prevent or Reduce the Risk of Cancer:
(1) Stop smoking tobacco, and avoid spending time with smokers.
(2) Stop chewing tobacco.
(3) Reduce exposure to UV radiation in sunlight and tanning lamps.
(4) Reduce fat in diet.
(5) Increase fiber and vegetables in diet (although this is under debate).
(6) Maintain balanced diet, including vitamins and minerals.
(7) Test your basement at home for radioactive radon.
(8) Reduce number of X-rays taken by dentists and physicians.
(9) Avoid promiscuous sexual relations to reduce risk of viral sexually transmitted diseases. Abstain from sex or remain faithful to your spouse.
(10) Avoid exposure to industrial chemicals (eg. pesticides, insecticides, organic solvents, etc.).
Of these 10 suggestions, perhaps the two most significant in reducing cancer risk are avoiding tobacco smoke and UV radiation. These two effects account for millions of cancer cases worldwide. Ironically, our society spends billions of dollars on cancer therapy, while thousands to millions of cases could have been prevented by simply not smoking and avoiding sunlight, each of which is free!
Smoking is analogous to a “thief who comes only to steal, kill, and destroy”. Smoking provides NO benefits to your health. Smoking steals money, kills individuals, and destroys social relationships (especially with non-smokers).
Have you experienced unusual symptoms that you suspect might be related to cancer?
Since different types of cancers are derived from different cell types, it follows that each form of cancer will have some characteristic symptoms that may be unique to it alone. Listed below are several common symptoms of cancer in general. However, you can have one or more of the symptoms listed above and not have cancer! In addition, early detection of cancer can significantly improve your options for therapy and prognosis. Early detection of some cancer can be done as a self-test or you can request your physician to do specific screening tests at recommended time intervals.
Symptoms of Cancer:
(1) Wounds that fail to heal
(2) Unusual bleeding
(3) Formation of new lumps or alterations in preexisting lesions
(4) Significant and unexpected changes in body weight
(5) Easy bruising
(6) Changes in the desire to eat; physical or psychological changes associated with stamina or lethargy.
If you note any of these symptoms, consult a physician.
What options are available to you as a diagnosed cancer patient?
Before you make a decision, consider asking your doctor to present you with a Risks vs. Benefits Profile for each option before deciding on a given course of action. The information you should be able to obtain from the doctor in establishing a Risks vs. Benefits Profile is included in “Questions to ask your doctor before starting cancer therapy” (below).
Surgery: If a malignant tumor is confined to a specific organ or detected early, surgery is frequently the therapy of choice. Surgery may be used in combination with another form of subsequent treatment. Surgery is often the first line of defense in dealing with cancer, even in more advanced disease.
Radiation Therapy: The principle behind this type of therapy is that radiation (eg. very strong X-rays or ionizing radiation from radioisotopes) can damage the genetic material (DNA within chromosomes) of tumor cells, thereby blocking the tumor cells’ ability to multiply. Radiation therapy works well for tumors confined to a specific region. The radiation source can be outside of your body or implanted near the tumor.
Chemotherapy: The use of drugs to treat cancer. There are various types of chemotherapy agents approved by the FDA that provide antitumor activity by a variety of different biochemical mechanisms. Most chemotherapy drugs block the replication of the fastest growing cells, such as tumor cells or normal cells within the hair follicles or intestines. Some drugs block DNA replication in the tumor cells, while others enhance your immune system’s ability to fight cancer cells. the latter is often referred to as immunotherapy.
Immunotherapy: The immune system participates in the surveillance and killing of cancer cells. New biotechnology-derived therapies can enhance the cancer cell-killing properties of white blood cells. Examples include interleukins, interferons, and other biological response modifiers (BRMs).
Early Detection of Cancer:
1. Have a thorough physical exam at a schedule recommended by your physician, including blood tests (CBC/SMAC), and any of the following tests when appropriate.
2. Blood in the feces may be a sign of colon cancer. A diagnostic test is available to detect blood in the feces, if it is not visible. The physician can perform internal examinations of the rectum manually and/or by inserting a special type of endoscopic camera. Colon cancer can be heritable, if you have had cases of colon cancer in your immediate family you may be at increased risk yourself.
3. For women: Frequent breast self-exams can pick up lumps that either were not present in prior checks or have grown since the last exam. Some lumps of the breast can be malignancies, but not all lumps necessarily mean cancer. Mammograms, or X-rays of the breast, are routinely performed for breast cancer detection. The tendency to develop breast cancer can also be heritable.
4. For women: PAP smears can detect carcinomas of the cervix, as well as other problems of the female reproductive tract. PAP smears and internal exams are performed by gynecologists or primary care physicians, and should be scheduled regularly by your physician.
5. For men: Blood in the urine or obstruction of the urinary tract can be caused by an enlarged or damaged prostate gland. You may request to have your urologist or primary care physician perform a “prostate-specific antigen” (PSA) blood test. This diagnostic test is an indicator of the possible presence of prostate cancer. Manual rectal exams are commonly performed as well to “feel” the prostate gland for enlargement. A common benign condition is called BPH.
6. Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in humans. Have your entire body examined by a dermatologist for the presence of skin cancer. A dermatologist is trained to recognize the difference between normal “moles” and warts, which are benign tumors of the skin, and malignancies such as carcinomas and melanoma. Most forms of skin cancer can be successfully treated surgically if detected and diagnosed early. However, some forms of skin cancer can be very serious in spite of an appearance to the contrary.
Questions to ask your doctor before starting cancer therapy or a Risks vs. Benefits Profile:
You might want to print this list to take with you to see your consulting physician(s).
1. How will your age, sex, and overall health affect the outcome?
2. What is the diagnosis of your disease (from a pathologist or oncologist)? What are the grade and stage of the disease?
3. How will any prior therapy affect current therapy attempts? If chemotherapy is chosen, will the tumor cells likely be cross-resistant to the second drug (ie. they won’t likely be affected by the drug)?
4. What are the documented statistics for “success” with this form of therapy, particularly for comparable individuals (same sex, age, type and grade of tumor, stage of cancer)? And by “success” is the doctor referring to increased longevity, reduction in tumor size, no detectable tumor, or something else? And, for how long?
5. What are the documented percentages of people on this particular therapy who have encountered adverse side effects (hair loss, nausea, pain, loss of weight, head aches, lethargy, increaed likelihood of an infection etc.)?
6. What would likely happen to you if you did nothing at all? What would happen if you or someone prayed for healing from God?
7. How advanced is your form of cancer? Is it metastatic (spreading)?
8. What will your quality of life be during and after therapy?
9. Do you really want this therapy? Or, do your family and/or friends have their own reasons for advocating proceeding with this therapy, possibly against your desires? How will this choice of therapy affect your family and friends psychologically?
10. Does the doctor have easy-to-understand literature available for you to read concerning this therapy, prior to commencing treatment?
11. For individuals of child bearing age, what is the potential impact on fertility or your ability to have children after therapy?
12. What other types of medicines are available to help you through the cancer treatment (eg. pain killers, anti-nausea drugs, etc.)?
13. Where will the therapy be performed? Will it require frequent long-distance travel? Do you have a support partner or organization?
14. Should you consider experimental, alternative, or nonconventional therapies? If so, where are the centers of excellence in each located? Is there any scientific evidence that these options might work?
15. What are the financial costs? What portions of your bills will not be covered by your insurance, Medicare, your employer, etc.?
16. How many options do you have (chemotherapy, surgery, alternative medicine, paliative care-assistance with pain management, prayer, etc.) The more viable choices you have might help guide your decision process.