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Causes
Cells are the building blocks of living things. Cancer grows out of normal cells in the body. Normal cells multiply when the body needs them, and die when the body doesn’t. Cancer appears to occur when the growth of cells in the body is out of control and cells divide too rapidly. It can also occur when cells “forget” how to die.
There are many different kinds of cancers. Cancer can develop in almost any organ or tissue, such as the lung, colon, breast, skin, bones, or nerve tissue.
There are multiple causes of cancers, including:
• Radiation
• Sunlight
• Tobacco
• Certain viruses
• Benzene
• Certain poisonous mushrooms and aflatoxins (a poison produced by organisms that can grow on peanut plants)
However, the cause of many cancers remains unknown.
The most common cause of cancer-related death is lung cancer.
The three most common cancers in men in the United States are prostate cancer, lung cancer, and colon cancer. In women in the U.S., the three most frequently occurring cancers are breast cancer, lung cancer, and colon cancer.
Certain cancers are more common in particular geographic areas. For example, in Japan, there are many cases of gastric cancer, while in the U.S. this type of cancer is relatively rare. Differences in diet may play a role.
Some other types of cancers include:
• Brain cancer
• Cervical cancer
• Uterine cancer
• Liver cancer
• Leukemia
• Hodgkin’s lymphoma
• Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
• Kidney cancer
• Ovarian cancer
• Skin cancer
• Testicular cancer
• Thyroid cancer
Back to TopSymptoms
Symptoms of cancer depend on the type and location of the tumor. For example, lung cancer can cause coughing, shortness of breath, or chest pain, while colon cancer often causes diarrhea, constipation, and blood in the stool.
Some cancers may not have any symptoms at all. In some cancers, such as gallbladder cancer, symptoms often are not present until the disease has reached an advanced stage.
However, the following symptoms are common with most cancers:
• Fever
• Chills
• Night sweats
• Weight loss
• Loss of appetite
• Fatigue
• Malaise
Back to TopSigns and Tests
Like symptoms, the signs of cancer vary based on the type and location of the tumor. Common tests include the following:
• CT scan
• Complete blood count (CBC)
• Blood chemistries
• Biopsy of the tumor
• Bone marrow biopsy (for lymphoma or leukemia)
• Chest x-ray
Most cancers are diagnosed by biopsy. Depending on the location of the tumor, the biopsy may be a simple procedure or a serious operation. Most patients with cancer undergo CT scans to determine the exact location of the tumor or tumors.
A cancer diagnosis is difficult to cope with. It is important, however, that you discuss the type, size, and location of the cancer with your doctor upon diagnosis. You also will want to ask about treatment options, along with their benefits and risks.
It’s a good idea to have someone with you at the doctor’s office to help you get through the diagnosis. If you have trouble asking questions after hearing about your diagnosis, the person you bring with you can ask them for you.
Back to TopTreatment
Treatment also varies based on the type of cancer and its stage. The stage of a cancer refers to how much it has grown and whether the tumor has spread from its original location.
• If the cancer is confined to one location and has not spread, the goal for treatment would be surgery and cure. This is often the case with skin cancers.
• If the tumor has spread to local lymph nodes only, sometimes these can also be removed.
• If all of the cancer cannot be removed with surgery, the options for treatment include radiation, chemotherapy, or both. Some cancers require a combination of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy.
Although treatment for cancer can be difficult, there many ways to keep up your strength.
If you have radiation treatment, know that:
• Radiation treatment is painless.
• Treatment is usually scheduled every weekday.
• You should allow 30 minutes for each treatment session although the treatment itself usually takes only a few minutes.
• You should get plenty of rest and eat a well-balanced diet during the course of your radiation therapy.
• Skin in the treated area may become sensitive and easily irritated.
• Side effects of radiation treatment are usually temporary and vary depending on the area of the body that is being treated.
If you are going through chemotherapy, you should eat right. Chemotherapy causes your immune system to weaken, so you should avoid people with colds or the flu. You should also get plenty of rest, and don’t feel you have to accomplish tasks all at once.
It will help you to talk with family, friends, or a support group about your feelings. Work with your health care providers throughout your treatment. Helping yourself can make you feel more in control.
Back to TopSupport Groups
The diagnosis of cancer often causes a lot of anxiety and can affect your entire quality of life. Several support groups for cancer patients to you cope.
Back to TopExpectations (prognosis)
The outlook varies widely among different types of cancer. Even among people with one particular type of cancer, the outcome varies depending on the stage of the tumor at diagnosis. Some cancers can be cured, some that are not curable can still be treated well, and some patients can live for many years with the cancer. Other tumors are rapidly fatal.
Back to TopComplications
One complication is that the cancer may spread. Other complications vary with the type and stage of the tumor.
Back to TopCalling Your Health Care Provider
You should contact your doctor if you develop signs or symptoms suggestive of cancer.
Back to TopPrevention
One of the best ways to prevent cancer is to not smoke or chew tobacco. Many cancers can be prevented by avoiding risk factors such as excessive exposure to sunlight and heavy drinking.
Cancer screenings, such as mammography and breast examination for breast cancer and colonoscopy for colon cancer, may help catch these cancers at their early, most treatable stages. Some people at high risk for developing certain cancers can take medication to reduce their risk.
More Information on This Topic
• News & Features
Review Date: 9/11/2006
Reviewed By: Rita Nanda, M.D., Department of Medicine, Section of Hematology/Oncology, University of Chicago Medical Center, Chicago, IL. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.

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