Monday, August 31, 2009

The Question of Cancer

When I wrote a veterinary blog, the most common question I had was "What IS this tumor on my pet-what is cancer?" With the passing of Ted Kennedy, the Senator and friend to most everyone he ever met, the magazines and periodicals are putting out information relating to brain cancer. Recent studies, showing that Prostate cancer is greatly over-diagnosed, are making rounds in the health columns. Stores sell pink products in support of the efforts made by the Susan G. Komen Foundation against breast cancer. The common tie to all of this is many people just know that "cancer" is the bad thing that kills people, but what cancer really IS seems to be lost in the headlines.

Cancer is a term given to cells in the body that grow and absorb other cells which in turn grow and absorb other cells, and the growth continues until the cells become toxic to the body. Cancer cells become toxic to the body for a few reasons. First, some of the growth happens so quickly that the function of the organs, bone, nerves, or blood vessels stops, and the body cannot work properly. Another way cancer cell growth becomes toxic is when the mass is so large that it ends up carrying its own blood supply-- so much so that other parts of the body lose oxygen, nutrients, and enzymes, and dies little by little, until the body ceases to function. Another way cancer becomes toxic is when the location of the growth interferes with key body functions, and the body cannot heal itself fast enough to battle the cell growth.

Tumors and lesions are not always "cancer". The shape the cells take, and the manner in which they grow are the key differences. Almost every human, at one time or another has a bump, lump, or growth that is certainly not a cancer. Warts, cysts, clogged pores, and nodules are not always cancerous, but sometimes lead doctors to watch for signs of future possible tumors. When a woman has a mammogram and a lump is discovered, it is usually cause for further testing. Some women have fibrous tissue, "dense breasts", and false positives for cancer. But with the proper follow up exams, cancer can be ruled out. Proper care makes the difference.

Cells that trigger to grow at a different rate than neighboring cells change shape, and density. Some of these cells become solid, others become soft. Softer cells are generally benign tumors, or appear as abscesses. Other soft cells end up appearing as lesions, that appear as openings, rather than lumps. When lesions occur, doctors are likely to assume the area is cancerous rather than benign. A benign tumor is likely to stop, lessen, or reduce growth after the correct treatment.

So what treatments stop the growth of cancer cells? Why is it that cancer seems to elude cure? Science reveals the key factors lie in genetics, chemical and biological influences, age, time- the issues that cause cancer in one person may be an entirely different in someone who has the same type of cancer. There are correlations that some women who have a cervical virus can develop cervical cancer later in life. There are some correlations with those who smoke developing lung cancer. Not all women who get cervical viruses, nor all people who smoke, develop cancer. If cancer held a definite cause and effect then it would be far easier for medical professionals to cure or eradicate the disease.

Cancer also seems to carry a clock. For some people, the clock is set to be fast, while others seem to stop. The remission of cancer happens for some but not others. What is remission? For some reason the cells that are eager to grow turn off that growth. Remission is the period of time that the cells stop growth. The period of time can be weeks, months, and for some the growth stops altogether. Most cancer treatments are designed to put those cells into full remission. Remission means there is always a stronger chance that the cancer will return later on, than for those who have no cancer at all.

Some patients have surgery. Areas of the body affected by the growth are removed, along with healthy cells nearby, in order to stimulate the growth of the healthy cells. Medications, or chemical-therapy, (chemo), are blended together to cause cells to stop growing. When chemo is combined with radiation, the 'bad' cells are killed off. Since the body has a weakened immune system during chemo, it doesn't fight against the death of the bad cells, and the body can begin to heal.

But other treatments are starting to come to play, in the advances of bone marrow and stem cell transplants. The concept behind these treatments is healthy cells that have the function of growth and support of healthy cells will replace the bad cells that are attempting to take over the body. The advances in this research over the last decade are vast. Even those with breast cancer and lung cancers are seeing results. It isn't the cure, but for some it means full remission.

There is hope that some day a "cure for cancer" will exist. It will likely have to be a genetic change as well as a chemical or surgical option. Because so many varieties of cancer exist, and so many causes are discovered, scientists are attempting to find a way to turn off the genetic factor that tells cells to start growing in the first place. The biggest struggles come from learning how to turn off the bad cells without stopping the growth of healthy, good cells. Biologists are learning from species which appear to be cancer-free, including sharks, as to what the genetic difference they carry that we could adapt for ourselves. The answer may be just one discovery away.

Life expectancy for those who have cancer is greatly different than it was just twenty years ago. The care for those battling the disease has greatly improved. We aren't killing the patients with the treatments as often as we had in the past. We are learning how, as patients, we can reduce our chance of contracting cancerous cells by eating the right foods, avoiding sun, refraining from smoking, and avoiding chemicals in the workplace. We screen for lumps, polyps, and lesions, and doctors are better trained at finding the cells that will result in cancer. Our awareness is greater, and our doctors are better educated. Until there is a cure, this is something we must rely upon.

This week's questions- Has cancer affected your family or your life? Have you discovered lesions or tumors and had them turn out benign? Do you feel the government should support medical research if it involves stem cells? Do you think private labs will discover the cure for cancer?

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