What The Heck is Cancer?


My late husband, Art and Dr. Wolin, the doctor who gave us 3 extra years with Art!


Cancer. If you haven’t heard of the word, it’s because you’re under the age of 11.

You know the word. You know people die from cancer. But what do you actually know about cancer? Do all cancers get treated with chemo? Do all people with cancer lose their hair?


Well, this is the primer for you! If you don’t have personal experience with cancer, I hope you will learn something new here today.


NOTE: I am not a doctor, although I played one when my husband had cancer. ;D) This for your informational consumption. For more details about cancer and treatments, please check out the American Cancer Society (www.cancer.org) and the National Cancer Institute (www.cancer.gov)


WHAT IS CANCER?

According to the Cancer Research Institute, cancer is the uncontrolled growth of cells that invade and damage the body’s normal tissues. It can begin in skin, bone, fat, organs, blood vessels, cartilage, bone marrow, and the immune system.


The term cancer covers more than 200 different diseases.


WHAT IS A TUMOR?

Tumors are an abnormal mass of cells that grow and divide more than they should, or they just refuse to die. Not all cancers develop into tumors. Tumors are either benign or malignant. Benign tumors can grow large and affect the body parts around them. Malignant tumors can also grow large but what makes them so dangerous is they invade and spread into nearby tissues and spread to other parts of the body or through the blood.


WHAT CAUSES CANCER?

There are chemicals that we know cause cancer, and there are actions we take that cause cancer. And I am sure you know that smoking and eating lots of red meat place you on the higher risk for cancer list.


Cancer can also be hereditary, such as BRCA, the breast cancer gene.


HOW IS CANCER TREATED?

Because cancers all have their own “fingerprints,” each cancer is treated differently. It depends on the kind of cancer. Some cancers require operations. Some chemo. Some radiation. Some, like my husband’s, require all three. Cancer treatments now include targeted therapies, stem cell or bone marrow transplant, and immunotherapy because of the advance in medicine. So the kind of treatment all depends on the kind of cancer.


DO ALL PEOPLE WITH CANCER LOSE THEIR HAIR?

No. The type of treatment a person receives dictates whether or not they lose their hair.


HOW COMMON IS CANCER?

According to the American Cancer Society, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 2 men can expect to develop cancer at some point in their lifetime. At some point, you will know many people who have or have had cancer. If you don't already.


In addition, 43.4% of those diagnosed with cancer will be between 35 – 64 years old, prime working years.


CAN PEOPLE LIVE A LONG TIME WITH CANCER?

Why, yes, they can! There is chronic cancer, which is cancer that will never go away. And in some cases, cancer can go into remission. Some with neuroendocrine tumors can live for many years, with symptoms coming and going.


IS CANCER CONTAGIOUS?

Nope!


IS ALL CANCER GENETIC?

Yes, but not in the way you think. Inherited genetic mutations play a significant role in up to 10% of all cancers. But all cancers are a failure of our genes to function properly, so in that sense, all cancer is genetic.


MY FRIEND HAS STAGE IV CANCER. WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?

Doctors use different “markers” to stage cancers. Stages are determined by a series of tests that can include x-rays, lab tests, CAT scans, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), positron emission tomography (PET), ultrasounds, and biopsies.


In general, most cancers are staged at 0 – IV.

  • Stage 0 = cancer that is in the place where it started and has not spread. It is usually highly curable and/or operable.

  • Stage I = small cancer or tumor that has not attached itself too deeply to into nearby tissues.

  • Stage II = A tumor or cancer that is larger than that of Stage I. This cancer hasn’t spread into other areas, but it can have spread to the lymph nodes. Cancer spreading to lymph nodes can be harmful because it signifies that the cancer is growing fast and/or spreading.

  • Stage III = The cancer is even larger. It has started to spread to surrounding tissues, and there are cancer cells in the nearby lymph nodes.

  • Stage IV = cancer or tumor that has spread to other parts of the body. It’s often referred to as advanced or metastatic cancer because it has advanced or spread deep into tissues, lymph nodes, or bloodstream. (My husband and I used to say even his cancer was smart! We had to find the humor wherever we could!)


HOW IS CANCER DIAGNOSED?

See "MY FRIEND HAS STAGE IV CANCER. WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?" above.


WHAT IS REMISSION?

Complete remission means that all tests and scans show that all signs of the cancer are gone. It doesn’t mean that a person is cured, and it doesn’t mean that life is back to normal. It simply means that the cancer is no longer growing or is gone. It's a beautiful word more and more people with cancer get to hear.


HOW CAN I HELP MY FRIEND OR CO-WORKER WITH CANCER?

There is so much you CAN do. Taking action is important for both of you that you say something.

  1. First, it’s vital to acknowledge your emotions. Cancer makes everyone uneasy. It’s hard to watch someone you care about dealing with a disease that feels uncontrollable.

  2. Second, remember that fear of not knowing what to say or saying the wrong thing is normal. Click here to learn five phrases never to say and what to say instead. And please remember that showing up for a person with cancer is more about showing up as yourself. No fancy meal or beautiful phrase is required.

  3. Third, educate yourself. The more you know about cancer, the more you will understand the challenges of having cancer and how to be the most supportive. That’s a good thing because your friend does not need one more person sharing a cancer cure they read about on the internet!

Is there a term that you feel should be included? Let me know!


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