Brought to you by Saint Alphonsus Cancer Care Center, expert(s) at Oncology.

New treatments, technology bring hope to cancer diagnosis

More than one million people are diagnosed with cancer each year, but thanks to medical advancements, such a diagnosis doesn't equate to a death sentence.
Today, millions of people are living with cancer or have been cured of the disease. The sooner a cancer is found and the sooner treatment begins, the better a patient's chances are of a cure, making early detection of cancer the key weapon in the fight against the disease.

What Is Cancer?

Although there are many kinds of cancer, they all start because of out-of-control growth of abnormal cells.
Normal body cells grow, divide and die in an orderly fashion. During the early years of a person's life, normal cells divide more rapidly until adulthood, at which point cells in most parts of the body divide, only to replace worn-out or dying cells and to repair injuries.
Instead of dying, cancer cells outlive normal cells and continue to form new abnormal cells.
Cancer cells develop because of damage to DNA, the substance in every cell that directs all activities. Most of the time when DNA becomes damaged, the body is able to repair it, but in cancer cells, the damaged DNA is not repaired. People can inherit damaged DNA, which accounts for inherited cancers, but more often, a person's DNA becomes damaged by exposure to something in the environment, like smoking.
Cancer usually forms as a tumor, although some cancers, like leukemia, do not. Instead, these cancer cells involve the blood and blood-forming organs and circulate through other tissues where they grow.
Often, cancer cells travel to other parts of the body where they begin to grow and replace normal tissue. This process is called metastasis. Regardless of where a cancer may spread, it is always named for the place it began. For instance, breast cancer that spreads to the liver is still called breast cancer, not liver cancer.
Not all tumors are cancerous. Benign tumors do not spread to other parts of the body and, with very rare exceptions, are not life threatening.
Different types of cancer can behave very differently. For example, lung cancer and breast cancer are very different diseases, growing at different rates and responding to different treatments. That is why people with cancer need treatment that is aimed at their particular kind of cancer.
Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States. Half of all men and one third of all women in the United States will develop cancer during their lifetimes.
Today, millions of people are living with cancer or have had cancer. The risk of developing most types of cancer can be reduced by changes in a person's lifestyle, including quitting smoking and eating a better diet.
The sooner a cancer is found and treatment begins, the better are the chances for living for many years.

What Causes Cancer?

Overall, environmental factors, defined broadly to include tobacco use, diet and infectious diseases, as well as chemicals and radiation, cause an estimated 75 percent of all cancer cases in the United States.
Among these factors, tobacco use, unhealthy diet and physical activity are more likely to affect personal cancer risk. Research shows that about one-third of all cancer deaths are related to dietary factors and lack of physical activity in adulthood.
Certain cancers are related to viral infections and could be prevented by behavior changes or vaccines. More than 1 million skin cancers expected to be diagnosed in 2003 could have been prevented by protection from the sun's rays.

General Cancer Signs and Symptoms

It is important to know what some of the general (non-specific) signs and symptoms of cancer are. They include unexplained weight loss, fever, fatigue, pain and changes in the skin. Of course, it's important to remember that having any of these does not necessarily mean that cancer is present - there are many other conditions that can cause these signs and symptoms as well.

How Are Signs and Symptoms Helpful?

Treatment is most successful when cancer is found as early as possible. Finding cancer early usually means it can be treated while it is still small and is less likely to have spread to other parts of the body. This often means a better chance for a cure, especially if initial treatment is to be surgery.
Sometimes people ignore symptoms, either because they do not recognize the symptoms as being significant or because they are frightened by what they might mean.
Most likely, any symptoms you may have will not be caused by cancer, but it's important to have them checked out by your doctor, just in case. If cancer is not the cause, your doctor can help figure out what it is and treat it, if needed.

Treatment Options

The number of treatment choices you have will depend on the type of cancer, the stage of the cancer and other individual factors such as your age, health status and personal preferences.
Not all types of treatment will be effective in your situation, so be sure you understand your options. Don't be afraid to ask questions; it is your right to know what treatments are most likely to help you and what their side effects may be.

How is Cancer Treated?

The four major types of treatment for cancer are surgery, radiation, chemotherapy and biologic therapies. You might also have heard about hormone therapies such as tamoxifen and transplant options such as those done with bone marrow.

Chemotherapy involves the use of powerful medicines that are most often given by mouth or by injection. Unlike radiation therapy or surgery, chemotherapy drugs can treat cancers that have spread throughout the body, because they travel in the bloodstream. Often, a combination of chemotherapy is used instead of a single drug.
Chemotherapy is given in cycles, each followed by a recovery period. The total course of chemotherapy is often about six months, but ranges between three and nine months.

After a cancer is removed by surgery, chemotherapy can significantly reduce the risk of cancer returning. The chances of cancer returning and the potential benefit of chemotherapy depend on the type of cancer and other individual factors.

Pain is one of the reasons people fear cancer so much. In fact, there are some cancers which cause no physical pain at all. When it does occur, cancer pain can happen for a variety of reasons, including the growth of a tumor or as a result of advanced cancer, while others may experience pain as a result of treatment side effects.

You should also know that doctors can treat and manage cancer pain with modern techniques and medicines. A great deal of progress has been made in pain control, so pain can be reduced or alleviated in almost all cases. Even patients with advanced disease can be kept comfortable.

Information provided by the American Cancer Society