The ‘C’ word can be a scary term to hear at a doctor’s office. It sounds more like a death sentence than a diagnosis. Even the cancer symbol is that of a crab, a creature that has the ability to ‘root itself’ into the sand, much like a hub of cancer cells. Cancer is the most feared and least understood health condition. Facing your fear can help you realize that it wasn’t as scary as you made it out to be. Sometimes not knowing is the real cause for concern.

Maybe you’ve recently been diagnosed or are a cancer survivor. Have you cared for someone with cancer or lost someone to it? It’s likely you have a lot of unanswered questions or concerns. There are hundreds of sources online from which you can acquire ample information on this topic, but much of it can be overwhelming and confusing as well.

So, let’s try to cover some fundamentals of cancer first, and go from there.

What is cancer?

Among the many definitions, the simplest one is that cancer is an abnormal growth of cells, that continue to divide in the body and invade or spread to surrounding tissue. Cancer cells can stem from or attack any cell, tissue or organ.

Under normal conditions, cells within the human body undergo continuous wear and tear. Old cells die (a process known as apoptosis) and are replaced with new ones. The growth and division of cells are tightly regulated by different control mechanisms within the body. When the control system fails, cells continue to proliferate and give rise to cancerous cells.

How many types of cancer are there?

There are more than 100 types of cancer making it the second leading cause of death in Americans. The most common type of cancer affecting men is prostate cancer in the United States, irrespective of race. According to the CDC, cancers of the lung, colorectal, bladder and melanoma follow next in line. The most common cancer that affects women is breast cancer, followed by colon, endometrial and lung cancer.

Another way to classify cancer depends on whether it is potentially harmful or not. In other words, they are either malignant or benign. Malignant neoplasms spread to and infiltrate secondary sites whereas a benign growth remains localized and does not have the potential to cause harm, even when left untouched.

What causes cancer?

The answer can be a complicated one, like the nature of the disease itself. Extensive research and study have gone into uncovering the factors that contribute to abnormal cell division. Here are some of them:


You may have heard of ‘genetic mutations’, changes that occur within the genes. Genes make up our DNA which controls cellular function. Some people are born with genetic mutations that may manifest as cancer at any point in life, but such types are rare. More commonly, genetic mutations occur after birth that may be caused by factors such as smoking, obesity and exposure to cancer causing chemicals. Inherited or not, genetic mutations make you prone to different types of cancer.


Cancer causing chemicals, also known as carcinogens, are associated with several cancer types. For instance, tobacco is considered a potent carcinogenic substance that is responsible for 90% of lung cancer. Head and neck cancer, pancreatic, laryngeal, stomach, bladder and esophageal cancer can also be caused by inhalation of tobacco smoke. Over 50 different carcinogens have been identified in tobacco smoke alone making it a potential health hazard with the ability to cause extensive damage.


Approximately 35% of cancer related deaths can be tied to obesity, lack of physical activity and poor dietary choices. There is sufficient evidence from clinical trials and studies that shows a significant link between obesity and cancer. For instance, obese and overweight woman are four times more likely to develop endometrial cancer (cancer of the uterus lining). Other cancers that share obesity as a common risk factor are, esophageal, gastric, liver, pancreatic, colorectal, multiple myeloma and kidney, to name a few.


Some viral infections tend to progress to cancerous conditions. They are called onco-viruses. Examples include human papilloma virus, Epstein-Barr virus, Hepatitis B and C viruses. Some bacteria and parasites have been linked to cancer as well.


Exposure to sunlight is a great risk factor for melanomas and other skin malignancies (skin cancer) since it comprises of non-ionizing ultraviolet radiation. Ionizing radiation sources include radon gas and medical imaging.


Sex hormones such as estrogen and progesterone increase the risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer. Men with higher levels of testosterone more prone to developing prostate cancer as compared to those with lower levels. Insulin like growth factors also play a role in cell proliferation, differentiation and cell death (apoptosis) advocating its role in carcinogenesis.

Physical agents:

These substances cause cancer through their physical effects rather than chemical ones. For example, prolonged exposure to asbestos may lead to development of mesothelioma (cancer of lung lining). Other asbestos-like agents are rock wool, glass wool and attapulgite.

Warning signs of cancer:

Manifestation of cancer signs depends upon the type of cancer. Unfortunately, most forms of cancer are caught in the later stages as they remain silent at the beginning. However, there are certain signs and symptoms which should be considered as red flags:

  • Persistent fatigue, nausea or vomiting
  • Change in bladder or bowel habits
  • Delayed or non-healing wounds or infections
  • Unusual or unexpected bleeding from an orifice
  • Difficulty in swallowing
  • Loss of appetite
  • Significant and rapid weight loss

The above symptoms should not be ignored. Seek expert medical advice from top online physicians at or visit  for more information. If you are currently on a medication regimen and are unable to manage the complex schedule on your own, try downloading our medicine reminder app iMEDtracker which will notify you at the time of your next dose.

How do you treat cancer?

Primary treatment options for cancer management are:

Chemotherapy: This encompasses the use of cytotoxic drugs that kill the harmful cells and spare the healthy ones, a regimen known as targeted chemotherapy. Currently, target therapy is used for breast cancer, prostate cancer, multiple myeloma and other cancers.

Radiation: Ionizing radiation is used to damage the DNA of cancerous cells. The radiation beams are carefully aimed at the cancer site to spare the surrounding healthy tissue. Radiotherapy is usually used in combination with chemo or surgery for desired results.

Surgery: Operative assistance is required for solid, localized masses that may cause additional pressure symptoms by affecting surrounding organs. Signs and symptoms are often relieved following surgery.

Palliative care: This is perhaps the most important aspect of care. Taking care of the patient’s needs and comfort can affect overall well-being. Supportive care can be a great booster of motivation and willpower.

Cancer can be one of the toughest things to face in life. Show your support by being kind and empathetic towards cancer patients. Sport a pink cancer ribbon in patronage or donate to cancer research. There is still a lot more work to be done!


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