Cancer, also called a malignancy, refers to a group of diseases characterized by out-of-control division of cells. Cancer is not a single disease and can affect any part of your body. Cancer cells can invade and kill normal tissues nearby.
According to the American Cancer Society, Cancer is the second most common cause of death in the US and accounts for nearly 1 of every 4 deaths.
With the development of advanced treatment and early detection techniques, cancer deaths are falling in numbers.
Cancer signs and symptoms vary depending upon the type and stage of the disease. Some general signs and symptoms associated with, but not specific to, cancer, include: • Fatigue • Lump or area of thickening on the skin for example in breast • Unexplained weight loss • Skin changes, such as yellowing, darkening or redness of the skin • Sores that don’t heal • Changes in existing moles or warts • Bowel or urinary changes • Nagging cough, trouble breathing or Hoarseness • Trouble swallowing • Persistent indigestion • Persistent, unexplained muscle or joint pain • Persistent, unexplained fevers or night sweats • Unusual bleeding or bruising
When to see a doctor? Cancer is often fatal and debilitating. Visit your doctor if you notice any of the above signs and symptoms. Even though none of the symptoms are present, but you suspect you are developing cancer, seek medical advice from your doctor. Discuss with your doctor to determine appropriate detection tests and procedures.
Cancer is essentially caused by Deoxy Ribonucleic Acid (DNA) mutations. The DNA is a hereditary material that carries a set of biological instructions that guide cellular functions, growth and division.
Any erroneous instruction causes cessation of normal cellular functions and development of abnormal cellular growth.
4 Making a Diagnosis
Making a diagnosis of cancer is done by several methods.
Call your doctor immediately if you have any worrisome sign or symptom that is bothering you. Once confirmed of having cancer, the doctor may refer you to cancer specialists such as:
Doctors who treat cancer (oncologists)
Doctors who treat cancer with radiation (radiation oncologists)
Doctors who treat diseases of the blood and blood-forming tissues (hematologists)
Cancer is a serious condition. Proper consultation with your doctor is necessary to avoid confusions and possible misdiagnosis. Prepare yourself to make the conversation more precise and fruitful with following tips:
What you can do
Make sure you follow any pre-appointment instructions. Ask your doctor if there's anything you need to do prior to the visit, such as restrict your diet.
Make a list of symptoms you're experiencing.
Make a clear note of family history of cancer. If you have any, mention the type of cancer and your relation to the patient.
Make a list of the questions (starting with the most important one) that you would ask to your doctor. If you are diagnosed with cancer, the following questions can be of value to you:
What’s the type of cancer am I suffering and at which stage?
Is my cancer curable? If yes, what are my treatment options? And if not, what should I expect?
What are the potential side effects of each treatment?
What will be the cost of treatment and what about insurance coverage?
Can you provide any brochure or other printed material?
What websites do you recommend?
Feel free to ask any additional question that’s in your mind at the time of visit.
What to expect from your doctor
Your doctor may ask:
When was the first time you started experiencing the symptoms?
Are there any factors that seem to worsen or improve your symptoms?
Is there a family history of cancer?
Did you have cancer earlier? If yes, what type and how was it treated?
Do you smoke or use tobacco?
Do you have history of hepatitis infection or a human papillomavirus infection?
Early diagnosis often yields better prognosis. Appropriate screening could help in better diagnosis and hence better treatment outcomes. Talk to your doctor about what type of cancer screening may be appropriate for you. In consultation with your doctor, you may review various guidelines to determine what works the best for you.
Your Doctor may recommend one or more of the following methods of diagnosis:
Physical examination: Your doctor can examine your body for lumps, skin changes, moles, warts or any other abnormalities that can be indicative of cancer.
Laboratory tests: Your doctor can recommend laboratory tests like urine and blood tests to help detect abnormalities that can be caused by cancer. For instance, higher level of white blood cells detected by complete blood count could reveal leukemia.
Imaging tests: A wide range of imaging tests are available that can help your doctor diagnose cancer better. Some of them are: Computerized Tomography (CT) scan, bone scan, Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scan, ultrasound and X-ray.
Biopsy: Biopsy involves microscopic examination of sample cells by experts to determine whether the cells are cancerous. For most cases of cancer, biopsy is the definitive diagnostic method.
After confirmation of cancer, it’s necessary to determine in which stage it is. Knowledge of cancer stage helps to determine treatment options and provides insight on prognosis. Imaging tests, such as bone scans or X-rays may be employed to see if cancer has spread to other parts of the body.
While cancer stages are generally indicated by Roman numerals from I to IV, letters or words may be used for certain cancers.
The choice of treatment option depends upon a number of factors like type and stage of cancer, your general health, and your preferences. Consult with your doctor to determine which treatment is best suited for you.
Goals of cancer treatment
Cure: Cancer treatment focuses on achieving a cure for your cancer thus bringing life back to normalcy, which may or may not be possible depending upon your particular condition.
Primary treatment: Primary treatment is aimed at completely removing the cancer from your body. The most common primary treatment is surgery. However, it is to be noted that any treatment can be a primary treatment, if cancer cells are sensitive to it.
Adjuvant treatment: Adjuvant therapy is employed to kill any cancer cells that have survived primary treatment. In effect, it is aimed at preventing cancer remission. Common adjuvant therapies include chemotherapy, radiation therapy and hormone therapy.
Palliative treatment: Cancer treatments are often associated with serious side effects. The patient bears burden of both cancer and its treatment at the same time. Many of these impacts of drug and cancer are relieved by Palliative treatment. Palliative treatment can be used in conjunction with other cancer therapy.
Cancer may be treated with:
Surgery: Surgery involves removal of cancerous tumors in part or whole, whichever possible.
Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy uses chemical compounds to kill cancer cells. These chemotherapeutics have selective toxicity on cancer cells while having less significant effect on healthy cells.
Radiation therapy: Radiation therapy utilizes high energy, ionizing radiation to shrink or kill cancer cells. The radiation comes from an external source (external beam radiation), or it can be placed inside your body (brachytherapy).
Stem cell transplant: Stem Cell Transplant is also called Bone Marrow Transplant. It utilizes your own stem cells or those from a donor and allows your doctor to use higher doses of chemotherapy to treat your cancer. In some cases, new stem cell can be used to replace diseased bone marrow.
Immunotherapy: Immunotherapy, also known as biological therapy, can be used to launch immunological attack on cancer cells.
Hormone therapy: Hormonal imbalance in your body can raise your cancer risk for breast cancer and prostate cancer. In such case, the excess hormone may be removed or their effect may be minimized through receptor blockade.
Targeted drug therapy: Targeted drug therapy uses drugs or other substances that interfere with specific molecules within cancer cells that are involved in carcinogenesis.
Clinical trials: Clinical trials are the studies conducted to investigate potential drugs for treating a disease or a condition. Currently, thousands of clinical trials are being conducted to investigate new treatment options for cancer.
Cancer is not completely preventable, but you can follow these guidelines to help:
Stop smoking: Studies have linked smoking to various types of cancer, apart from lung cancer. Quit smoking if you are a smoker and if you don’t smoke, don’t start.
Avoid excessive sun exposure: UV rays increase your risk of skin cancer. Limit your sun exposure by staying indoors and wearing protective clothing. When staying outdoors, apply sunblock products
Eat a healthy diet: Feast on fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins. Take a balanced diet rich in vitamins, antioxidants, micronutrients and protein.
Exercise: Regular exercise is linked to a lower risk of cancer. Do any type of physical activity for at least 30 minutes three or more times a week. If you live a sedentary life, start exercising.
Maintain a healthy weight: Obesity could increase your risk of cancer. Keep your weight in check through a combination of a healthy diet and regular exercise.
Drink in moderation: If you choose to drink alcohol, limit yourself to one drink a day if you're a woman of any age or a man older than age 65, or two drinks a day if you're a man 65 years old or younger.
Get screened for cancer: Consult your doctor for choosing appropriate cancer screening based on your risk factors.
Get antiviral shots: Certain viruses increase your risk of cancer for example Hepatitis B increases the risk of liver cancer, and human papillomavirus (HPV) increases the risk of cervical cancer and other cancers. Immunizations may help Prevent the cancers associated with these viruses.
7 Alternative and Homeopathic Remedies
Until now, not many alternative cancer remedies have demonstrated an effective cure for cancer.
However, some alternative medicinal options like Acupuncture Hypnosis, Massage, Meditation, Relaxation techniques and Yoga might be useful for coping with cancer symptoms and side effects of treatment.
Consult your doctor before applying any of these alternative remedies to your treatment plan.
8 Lifestyle and Coping
Lifestyle modifications are necessary in order to cope with cancer.
Cancer diagnosis can be devastating and life changing news for patients and their families. We bring you some ideas to help you cope:
Ask your doctor about your cancer, including your treatment options and, if you like, your prognosis.
Socialize and spend quality time with your friends and family as they provide you emotional as well as other support whenever needed.
Join a support group or a counseling class.
Access other related information from the National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society.
9 Risks and Complications
There are several risks and complications associated with cancer.
The factors known to increase risk of cancer are:
Age: Most people diagnosed with cancer are 65 or older. But cancer is not exclusively an adult disease.
Habit: Smoking, heavy drinking, sedentary life, obesity and excessive UV exposure have been well documented as lifestyle related risk factors of cancer. These habits are modifiable and it’s never too late to change them.
Your family history: Inheritance of mutated genes causes cancer in only small portion of the population.
Your health conditions: Some chronic health conditions, such as ulcerative colitis, can increase your risk of cancer.
Your environment: Secondhand smoke, chemicals at your home or workplace, such as asbestos and benzene, also are associated with an increased risk of cancer.
Complications arise due to both cancer and its treatment. Some of the complications are:
Pain: Pain can be caused by cancer or by cancer treatment or both. Medical and/or non-medical interventions can help you ease cancer-related pain.
Fatigue: Fatigue is common in people with cancer but it's usually temporary.
Difficulty breathing: Cancer or cancer treatment may cause a feeling of being short of breath. Treatments may bring relief.
Nausea: Nausea is also a common occurrence in cancers. It may be caused by cancer or cancer treatments. Your doctor might recommend medications and other treatments to help you prevent or decrease nausea.
Weight loss: Cancer and cancer treatment may cause weight loss. Cancer cells deprive normal cells of nutrients. This weight is independent of the calorie intake or the type of the food taken.
Chemical changes in your body: Disturbance in normal chemical balance in your body is characterized by excessive thirst, frequent urination, constipation and confusion. Neurological manifestations of cancer include pain and loss of function of one part of your body. Brain related cancer may show up stroke-like signs and symptoms, such as weakness on one side of your body.
Unusual immune system reactions to cancer: In very rare cases, a condition called Paraneoplastic syndrome may surface, in which immune system mounts attack on healthy cells causing symptoms like seizures and difficulty walking.
Cancer that spreads: A cancer that spreads is called metastatic cancer. Metastasis is dependent on the type of cancer.
Cancer that returns: A cancer that has been treated might return back. So, cancer survivors are advised to have periodic scans and exams in the months and years after treatment, to look for cancer recurrence. Talk to your doctor about follow-up care plan for you.
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