What is cancer?
Cancer is a collection of diseases characterized by uncontrolled proliferation and spread of abnormal cells. If left untreated, these cells can invade nearby tissues and organs and spread to other parts of the body through the bloodstream and lymph system. There are many types of cancer, including breast cancer, lung cancer, prostate cancer, and skin cancer, among others. Each type of cancer has unique causes and risk factors and requires different treatments.
Causes of Cancer
Cancer usually results from mutations or changes to the DNA within cells. The DNA inside a cell is the blueprint for all of the cell’s functions and is responsible for the normal growth and division of cells. When DNA mutations occur, they can cause cells to divide and grow in an uncontrolled way, leading to the formation of a tumour. The following are some ways in which mutations can occur:
- Inherited mutations: Some mutations are inherited from parents and are present in every cell of the body from birth.
- Environmental factors: Exposure to certain chemicals, substances, and viruses can cause DNA mutations. For example, exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun increases the risk of skin cancer.
- Lifestyle choices: Some lifestyle choices such as smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, poor diet and lack of physical activity can increase the risk of cancer.
- Random mutations: Some mutations occur by chance as a cell divides and replicates its DNA. These random mutations can accumulate over time, increasing the risk of cancer.
Note that not all mutations lead to cancer, but certain mutations in key genes can make cells more likely to become cancerous.
Risk Factors for Cancers
There are several risk factors that can increase a person’s likelihood of developing cancer, including:
- Age: The older a person gets, the higher the risks of developing cancer.
- Family history: Having a family history of certain types of cancer, such as breast or colon cancer, can increase a person’s risk.
- Certain inherited genetic conditions: Certain genetic conditions, such as Lynch syndrome, can increase a person’s risk of developing certain types of cancer.
- Lifestyle choices: Factors such as smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, poor diet, lack of physical activity and being overweight or obese can increase a person’s risk of cancer.
- Exposure to certain chemicals and substances: Certain chemicals and substances, such as asbestos and radon, can increase a person’s risk of developing cancer.
- Certain infections: Some infections, such as human papillomavirus (HPV) and hepatitis B and C, can increase a person’s risk of certain types of cancer.
- UV radiation: Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun or tanning beds increases the risk of skin cancer.
- Hormone levels: Some cancers, such as breast and prostate cancer, are influenced by hormone levels.
Having a risk factor does not mean that a person will develop cancer, and not having any known risk factors does not mean a person will not develop cancer. Regular screenings and check-ups can help identify cancer early when it’s more likely to be treated successfully.
Diagnosis of Cancer
Diagnosis of cancer typically begins with a visit to a healthcare provider, who will take a patient’s medical history and conduct a physical examination. Depending on the type of cancer and the patient’s symptoms, the healthcare provider may order one or more of the following tests to help diagnose cancer:
- Blood tests: Certain cancers, such as leukaemia and lymphoma, can be diagnosed through blood tests.
- Imaging tests: Imaging tests such as X-rays, computed tomography (CT) scans, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, and positron emission tomography (PET) scans can help detect cancer and determine its size and location.
- Biopsy: A biopsy involves taking a small sample of tissue to be examined under a microscope. A biopsy is typically the only way to confirm a cancer diagnosis.
- Genetic testing: Genetic testing may be used to determine if a person has an inherited genetic condition that increases their risk of certain types of cancer.
If cancer is diagnosed, further tests may be done to determine the stage of the cancer and the best course of treatment. These tests may include additional imaging tests, as well as tests to determine if the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.
Diagnosis of cancer can be a complex and emotional process. It’s important to have support and guidance from healthcare providers and loved ones throughout the process.
Treatment of Cancer
Treatment for cancer typically involves a combination of therapies, which may include:
- Surgery: Surgery is the removal of the cancerous tumour and surrounding tissue. It is the most common treatment for solid tumours.
- Radiation therapy: Radiation therapy involves using high-energy rays to kill cancer cells and shrink tumours. It can be delivered externally, using a machine that directs radiation beams at the tumour, or internally, by placing a small radioactive source in or near the tumour.
- Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells. It can be given as pills, injections, or through a vein. Drugs that travel throughout the body can treat cancer that has spread to multiple parts of the body.
- Immunotherapy: Immunotherapy is a type of treatment that helps the immune system fight cancer. Combining it with other treatments is possible as well as using it alone.
- Targeted therapy: Targeted therapy involves targeting specific genes or proteins in cancer cells. Treatment can be given alone or in combination with other methods.
- Hormone therapy: Hormone therapy is a type of treatment that targets hormones that help cancer cells grow. This treatment may be used alone or in combination with others.
- Stem cell transplant: A stem cell transplant is a procedure that replaces the patient’s blood-forming cells that have been damaged or destroyed by chemotherapy or radiation therapy.
The specific treatment plan will depend on the type, stage, location, and size of the cancer, as well as the patient’s overall health and personal preferences. Treatments are usually combined in most cases.
Cancer treatment can have side effects, which can vary depending on the type and intensity of the treatment. Patients should discuss potential side effects with their healthcare provider and be prepared for them.
Prevention of Cancer
Preventing cancer involves making lifestyle choices that reduce the risk of developing the disease, as well as early detection and screening. Some ways to reduce the risk of cancer include:
- Not smoking or using tobacco products
- Limiting alcohol consumption
- Eating a healthy diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and low in red and processed meats
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Staying physically active
- Protecting skin from the sun
- Being vaccinated against certain infections, such as HPV and hepatitis B
- Being screened for certain types of cancer, such as breast, colon, and cervical cancer
It’s important to note that not all cancers can be prevented, and even people who make healthy lifestyle choices may still develop the disease. Early detection and screening can help increase the chances of successful treatment. Regular check-ups, screenings and following the guidelines from the health care providers can help in the early detection and prevention of cancer.
Palliative care for cancer patients
The concept of palliative care refers to specialized medical care provided to people suffering from serious illnesses. Palliative care can be provided along with curative treatment, and it can begin at diagnosis, rather than waiting until the disease has progressed.
Palliative care can be provided in various settings such as inpatient hospital units, outpatient clinics, nursing homes, and at home by a team of healthcare professionals including doctors, nurses, social workers, chaplains, and other specialists.
Palliative care for cancer is specialized medical care for people with cancer that focuses on improving the quality of life for both the patient and the patient’s family. Palliative care can be provided at any stage of the disease, including at the time of diagnosis and throughout treatment, and it can be provided along with curative treatment.
Palliative care for cancer can include:
- Relief of symptoms such as pain, nausea, fatigue, and emotional distress
- Addressing psychological, social, and spiritual concerns
- Helping with decision making about care and treatment options
- Coordinating with the patient’s other healthcare providers
- Providing support and education for the patient’s family and caregivers
Palliative care can help patients and their families cope with the physical, emotional, and practical challenges that come with cancer. It can improve quality of life, reduce suffering, and support patients and their families through the entire cancer journey.
Some of the interventions in palliative care for cancer patients can include:
- Medications to control symptoms such as pain, fatigue, shortness of breath
- Supportive therapy such as massage, relaxation techniques, and art therapy to improve emotional well-being
- Nutrition support, to help maintain strength and prevent weight loss
- Assistance with activities of daily living
- Coordination of care with other healthcare providers
- Assistance with end-of-life planning and hospice care
It’s important for cancer patients and their families to have access to palliative care as part of their overall cancer care plan, as it can greatly improve their quality of life during and after treatment.