What is Cancer?
Cancer is not one disease but many diseases that occur in different areas of the body. Each type of cancer is caused by the uncontrolled growth of cells. Under normal conditions, cell life and death is carefully controlled by the body. However, these controls can break down, which can cause abnormal cell growth and the development of a lump, mass, or tumor. Some cancers involving the blood and blood-forming organs do not form tumors but travel through other tissues, where they grow.
A tumor may be benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous). Cells from cancerous tumors can spread throughout the body. This process, called metastasis, occurs when cancer cells break away from the original tumor and travel through the blood or lymph systems until they are lodged in another area of the body. Common locations of metastasis are the bones, lungs, liver, and brain. The type of cancer refers to the organ or area of the body where the cancer first occurred. Cancer that has metastasized to other areas of the body is named for the part of the body where it started. For example, if breast cancer has spread to the bones, it is called “metastatic breast cancer” not bone cancer.
There are many factors that help doctors decide how to treat your cancer. One of the most important things to look at when making a treatment decision is to look at the stage of the cancer. Stage tells the extent of the cancer in the body by looking at the size of the original tumor (T), if there is any disease in nearby lymph nodes (N), or if the cancer has spread (metastasized) to other areas outside of the original tumor location (M)–this is called TNM staging. Determining the stage of the cancer usually requires that one or more procedures be performed. These may include procedures such as a biopsy (removal of a small amount of tumor tissue), blood tests, x-rays, mammograms, bone scans, computed tomography (CT) scans, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, or positron emission tomography (PET) scans. The TNM staging is a complex process and is different for each type of cancer. Your doctor will inform you what stage your cancer is before you begin treatment.
An additional item that doctors look at when determining what type of treatment to give you is to have a more specific breakdown of the tumor tissue cells by a pathologist (doctor who looks at cells and tissues). Because one type of cancer can have several different varieties, the pathologist can provide a more accurate description of exactly what variety of cancer you have. The pathologist will also do special testing to determine things such as if your cancer is hormone-sensitive (grows faster in the presence of certain hormones), or if it has an excess of particular proteins on the cancer cells (which may help us find a drug that will specifically target those proteins). In addition, the pathologist can tell if any of your cancer cells have genetic/DNA changes, which can help the doctor determine the best route of treatment for you.
Even though cancer is a complicated disease in its own right, the advances in science and medical research have increased the number of factors that doctors need to look at when deciding your best treatment. However, this also means there are better treatment options that are available to care for patients, as doctors can now select even more effective treatments than ever before. Because this large amount of information may be overwhelming and confusing as you are trying to research your disease, at Hematology & Oncology Consultants, P.C., we will discuss your specific cancer in detail and provide you with the information that is related to your treatment.