Cancer can start any place in the body. It starts when cells grow out of control and crowd out normal cells. This makes it hard for the body to work the way it should.
Cancer can be treated very well for many people. In fact, more people than ever before lead full lives after cancer treatment.
Here we will explain what cancer is and how it’s treated. You’ll find a list of words about cancer and what they mean at the end of this booklet.
Cancer is not just one disease
There are many types of cancer. It’s not just one disease. Cancer can start in the lungs, the breast, the colon, or even in the blood. Cancers are alike in some ways, but they are different in the ways they grow and spread.
How are cancers alike?
The cells in our bodies all have certain jobs to do. Normal cells divide in an orderly way. They die when they are worn out or damaged, and new cells take their place. Cancer is when the cells start to grow out of control. The cancer cells keep on growing and making new cells. They crowd out normal cells. This causes problems in the part of the body where cancer started.
Cancer cells can also spread to other parts of the body. For instance, cancer cells in the lung can travel to the bones and grow there. When cancer cells spread, it’s called metastasis. When lung cancer spreads to the bones, it’s still called lung cancer. To doctors, the cancer cells in the bones look just like the ones from the lung. It’s not called bone cancer unless it started in the bones.
How are cancers different?
Some cancers grow and spread fast. Others grow more slowly. They also respond to treatment in different ways. Some types of cancer are best treated with surgery; others respond better to drugs called chemotherapy . Often 2 or more treatments are used to get the best results.
When someone has cancer, the doctor will want to find out what kind of cancer it is. People with cancer need treatment that works for their type of cancer.
What are tumors?
Most cancers form a lump called a tumor or a growth. But not all lumps are cancer. Doctors take out a piece of the lump and look at it to find out if it’s cancer. Lumps that are not cancer are called benign. Lumps that are cancer are called malignant.
There are some cancers, like leukemia (cancer of the blood), that don’t form tumors. They grow in the blood cells or other cells of the body.
“There is a fear that goes through you when you’re told you have cancer. It’s so hard, in the beginning, to think about anything but your diagnosis. It’s the first thing you think about every morning. I want people with cancer to know it does get better. Talking about your cancer helps you deal with all of the new emotions you are feeling. Remember, it’s normal to get upset.” cancer survivor.
What stage is cancer?
The doctor also needs to know if and how far cancer has spread from where it started. This is called the cancer stage. You may have heard other people say that their cancer was stage 1 or stage 2. Knowing the stage of cancer helps the doctor decide what type of treatment is best.
For each type of cancer there are tests that can be done to figure out the stage of the cancer. As a rule, a lower stage (such as a stage 1 or 2) means that the cancer has not spread very much. A higher number (such as a stage 3 or 4) means it has spread more. Stage 4 is the highest stage.
Ask your doctor to explain the stage of your cancer and what it means for you.
How is cancer treated?
The most common treatments for cancer are surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation.
Surgery can be used to take out cancer. The doctor might also take out some or all of the body part cancer affects. For breast cancer, part (or all) of the breast might be removed. For prostate cancer, the prostate gland might be taken out. Surgery is not used for all types of cancer. For example, blood cancers like leukemia are best treated with drugs.
Chemo (short for chemotherapy) is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells or slow their growth. Some chemo can be given by IV (into a vein through a needle), and others are a pill you swallow. Because chemo drugs travel to nearly all parts of the body, they are useful for cancer that has spread.
Radiation is also used to kill or slow the growth of cancer cells. It can be used alone or with surgery or chemo. Radiation treatment is like getting an x-ray. Sometimes it’s given by putting a “seed” inside cancer to give off the radiation.
“What was helpful for me was taking the time to step back and see the big picture. Getting the answers to my questions helped me to make a good decision. I did what I wanted and needed to do. I did things that made me feel comfortable, not what others thought I needed to do to be comfortable.” – Kevin, cancer survivor
What treatment is best for me?
Your cancer treatment will depend on what’s best for you. Some cancers respond better to surgery; others respond better to chemo or radiation. Knowing the type of cancer you have is the first step toward knowing which treatments will work best for you.
The stage of your cancer will also help the doctor decide on the best treatment for you. Stage 3 or 4 cancer is likely to respond better to treatments that treat the whole body, like chemo.
Your health and the treatment you prefer will also play a part in deciding about cancer treatment. Not all types of treatment will work for your cancer, so ask what options you have. And treatments do have side effects, so ask about what to expect with each treatment.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions. It’s your right to know what treatments are most likely to help and what their side effects may be.
Why did this happen to me?
People with cancer often ask, “What did I do wrong?” or “Why me?” Doctors don’t know for sure what causes cancer. When doctors can’t give a cause, people may come up with their own ideas about why it happened.
Some people think they’re being punished for something they did or didn’t do in the past. Most people wonder if they did something to cause cancer.
If you’re having these feelings, you’re not alone. Thoughts and beliefs like this are common for people with cancer. You need to know that cancer is not a punishment for your past actions. Try to not blame yourself or focus on looking for ways you might have prevented cancer. Cancer is not your fault, and there’s almost never a way to find out what caused it. Instead, focus on taking good care of yourself now.
Dr. Rakesh Rai. MS, FRCS, MD, CCT, ASTS Fellow.