Cancer

Cancer Part One- An introduction

CANCER. A six-letter word that can make your heart sink into your stomach. While everyone seems to be affected by cancer, either directly or indirectly, there seems to be confusion and misconceptions surrounding the disease. So here we will give a simplified definition of cancer, some basic facts, vocabulary terms, statistics and more in hopes of translating science into normal terms. 

What is cancer?

Cancer can be defined as “a term for diseases in which abnormal cells divide without control and can invade nearby tissues. Cancer cells can also spread to other parts of the body through the blood and lymph systems…1” but put more simply, cancer is an error in growth regulation. 

Cancer is referred to as a “clonal disease” meaning that it originates from one cell that has a mistake.2 This mistake is referred to as a mutation. This one cell begins to grow and replicate, making clones of itself. Overtime, these clones develop more mistakes and eventually you get a group of cells that have unregulated growth.

Let’s think about the initial cancer cell as a fugitive. One of our 30+ trillion cells breaks the rules, evades the death sentence, and slowly gains a posse. This posse makes it even harder for the police (the immune system) to gain back control. In the same way, the first initial cancer cell eventually turns into a group of cancer cells known as a tumor.

Now that we know the basic definitions of cancer, lets address some of those crazy vocabulary words that physicians throw around:

  • Oncologist: fancy word for “cancer doctor”
  • Carcinogen: a chemical that has the potential to cause cancer
  • Benign: a mass of cells that is not considered cancerous
  • Metastatic: a mass of cells that is growing quickly in one site and has the potential to travel to a new spot in the body and grow a second mass of cells

Facts:

  • Cancer is a common disease.
    • 38.4% of individuals will be diagnosed within their lifetime3
  • Risk of developing cancer increases with age4
  • Cancer is a latent disease, meaning…
    • It takes a long time for cancer to develop after the process has been initiated
      • Again, cancer starts with ONE cell, but when a patient has been clinically diagnosed with cancer, there are between 100 million to one billion cells in the tumor (1 cell to 100 million cells TAKES TIME)
  • Cancer can be environmentally induced5
    • Exposure to carcinogens in the environment can influence the risk of developing cancer.
    • Environmental carcinogens can be chemical, physical (UV light) or biological (viruses).
  • There are a few specific mutations that are known to increase the risk of developing cancer. 
    • BRCA is one of the most common mutations and is associated with hereditary breast and ovarian cancers

Fiction

  • There is a CURE for cancer!
    • There is not one single cure for cancer. Although we wish cancer was that simple, it’s not. The millions of possible mutations in trillions of cells reveals that there are an endless combination of drug targets for every different type of cancer. Scientists are learning more and more every day about how to approach individualized medicine in cancer research to target the initial mutation. 
  • The government is HIDING the cure for cancer.
    • Oftentimes when I tell people that I study cancer (simply put) I get asked the above question. The answer is no. Logistically, think about it… if there was a cure for cancer, why would the government hide it? Billions of dollars are spent studying cancer (provided by the government), so if there was a cure why would they waste that money?
  • Eating a natural (or any) special diet will cure cancer.
    • Unfortunately, cancer is not affected by any special diet. The mutations are encoded into the cells so nothing you eat is going to be able to kill them…not even keto.
  • Sugar fuels cancer.
    • Some studies have attempted to look into this idea, but all of them have failed to show any evidence. Cancer is fueled by its own metabolism, which is rampant, and nothing that you eat is going to make the cancer go any faster or slower. 
  • Cancer is contagious.
    • There is absolutely no way to pass cancer from one person to another. Cancer is not like a bacteria or a virus so you cannot “catch it.” It is caused by a mistake in your own cell’s machinery and thus cannot create a mistake in someone else’s body.
  • Cell phones cause cancer.
    • This is also another myth. Cell phones use radio waves. Since they are one of the slowest types of waves, there is zero chance that any of these signals could penetrate out skin and cause damage to our cells. 
  • Cancer is a death sentence.
    • While this used to be the case, cancer research has come so far in the past few decades. We not only can use drugs to kill a multitude of cancers, but we have even moved into immunotherapy where we are teaching our bodies to fight our own cancer. The future of cancer therapy is more promising than it has ever been before! In 2019, the overall survival rate for all cancers in the United States was over 60% with some types of cancers being over 80%!10

Preventative measures:

  •  Avoid tobacco
    • Cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco, etc.
  •  Avoid UV exposure
    • Including tanning beds AND natural sunlight
    • Sunscreen is your friend, apply every two hours when outside
      • PS: spray tans are life changing if the pasty life is not the life for you!
  • PAP smears
    • Not something that I look forward to, BUT PAP smears are used to detect abnormal cells (dysplasia) before they become cancerous
    • PAP smears are attributed to playing a role in the decrease in cervical cancer
  •  Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Vaccine (Gardasil or Cervarix)
    • An HPV vaccine can protect against certain strains of the human papillomavirus which are known to cause cervical cancer and genital warts
    • All doses are REQUIRED for the vaccine to reach its fullest potential
      • Another key player (along with PAP smears) in decreasing the prevalence of cervical cancer
  • Colonoscopies
    • Long flexible tubes in the rectum aren’t ideal, but neither is cancer!
      • Did you know that colon cancer has decreased in prevalence by 30% in the past 10 years?7 This is thought to be attributed to colonoscopies and early detection.
  • Breast self-examinations
    • Breast cancer is one of the most metastatic cancer types, meaning it’s quick to spread to other parts of the body8
      • Early detection via self-examinations can play a huge role in detecting the cancer early on
  • Yearly medical check-ups!
    • If you forget any of the previous preventative measures, just remember to always get your yearly physical!

Current Treatments and Therapies:

  • Surgery: A surgeon removes cancer from your body9
  • Chemotherapy: Specific chemicals are given in order to kill cancer cells9
  • Radiation: Using high levels of radiation to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors9
  • Immunotherapy: Boosts your immune system to fight cancer9 (post coming soon!)
  • Targeted therapy: Targets the changes that are specific to cancer cells that allow them to multiply and spread9 
  • Hormone therapy: Treats cancers like breast and prostate cancer, which utilize hormones in order to grow9
  • Precision therapy: Utilizes the genetics (mutations) of the cancer to decide the best medication to treat the cancer9

While you’re here, don’t forget to check out our weekly COVID-19 update! Thanks for reading and make sure to check back next week for PART TWO of our CANCER introductory post! In the meantime, let us know if you have any questions, comments or feedback and don’t forget to follow/like us!

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Written by Megan & Denys
Illustrated by Rhea

Disclaimer: We are not medical professionals and the above information is not meant to serve as diagnostic factors or medical advice. Further, the opinions in this post are our opinions and in no way reflect the opinions of our mentors or Medical University of South Carolina.

References

  1. https://www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms/def/cancer
  2. Greaves, M., & Maley, C. C. (2012). Clonal evolution in cancer. Nature, 481(7381), 306–313. https://doi.org/10.1038/nature10762
  3. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/understanding/statistics
  4. https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/nih-study-offers-insight-into-why-cancer-incidence-increases-age
  5. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/substances
  6. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/genetics/brca-fact-sheet
  7. https://fightcolorectalcancer.org/colorectal-cancer/facts-stats/
  8. https://www.cancer.gov/types/metastatic-cancer
  9. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/types
  10. https://www.cancer.org/content/dam/cancer-org/research/cancer-facts-and-statistics/annual-cancer-facts-and-figures/2019/cancer-facts-and-figures-2019.pdf

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