RPM for Cancer
What is Cancer?
If cells begin to multiply abnormally and/or spread throughout the body, this is generally known as cancer. There are over 100 kinds of cancer that look and behave differently.
Cancer occurs when the standard process of cell growth, death, and regeneration is interrupted. Instead of damaged cells being replaced by new, healthy cells, those damaged cells might instead multiply and spread. This creates tumors, or lumps of tissue, formed by those unwanted cells.
However, not all tumors are cancerous. Some tissue changes and abnormal tissue growth is benign. In these cases, a medical practitioner might want to monitor the condition to ensure that the condition remains benign. If there is any concern that the tumor or tissue might become cancerous (or malignant), then they might want to treat the benign condition before it has the chance to become cancerous.
That’s because a notable behavior of cancerous cells is that they spread. As these cells multiply, they might infect surrounding healthy organs and tissue, creating new tumors, via a process known as metastasis. This process is not replicated by benign tumors. Benign tumors are also very unlikely to return if fully excised, which is a reason that treatment of tumors that could later become cancerous is often advised; once a tumor becomes malignant, there is a much greater chance it will spread or even return once removed.
It’s also worth noting that not all cancers form tumors or result in tissue changes. In some cases, such as blood cancer, the cells might not take on a more cohesive, solid form. However, all cancers have the potential to manifest life-threatening symptoms and can be fatal.
How Is Cancer Identified?
What is the difference between a healthy cell and a cell that is malignant?
Doctors will look for the following signs:
Cancer cells can develop when and where they shouldn’t.
Cancer cells do not obey healthy rules of cell division (growing at the speed and rate they should) and, as damaged cells, they do not die as they’re supposed to (in a process known as apoptosis).
Healthy cells do not move throughout the body freely; cancer cells will spread to surrounding cells and areas of the body without regular boundaries.
Cancer cells have abnormalities in their very chromosomes, including duplications or deletions.
Healthy cells request certain nutrients from the body, via nearby blood vessels, in order to grow and thrive; however, abnormal cells have abnormal nutrient requests. With those abnormal nutrients, they will process energy abnormally, which is then expended in the excess growth and multiplication of those cancerous cells.
There are, however, many ways that cancer tries to hide from detection. That is what makes regular checkups, preventive care, and active monitoring so important.
Here are a few ways that cancer adapts to the human body:
Cancer cells help tumors thrive by sending signals to blood vessels that will convince them to stay close and provide oxygen.
Although the immune system is meant to identify and eradicate threats, such as damaged cells, cancer attempts to conceal itself as long as possible and is very talented at doing so.
In fact, cancer can trick the immune system into supporting its survival (just like it convinces blood vessels to support its tumors). It may confuse the immune system into sending healthy cells that surround, protect, and potentially even temporarily hide the cancer cells.
In some cases, cancer cells would be unable to make a home in the human body without this robust system of manipulation. But this helps practitioners and researchers look for common patterns of behavior that cancer cells tend to rely upon. It can help some cancers become easier to detect at an earlier stage or allow them to prevent blood vessels or the immune system from responding in ways that aid the cancer’s progress.
How, and Why, Do People Get Cancer?
Whether or not cells will behave abnormally is decided by genes. Genes determine if cell division or death processes will be interrupted. Gene changes can be introduced by external, environmental factors that impact DNA. Genetics can, of course, also be inherited and proclivity toward cancer can be predetermined.
Regardless of the genetic factors, the body’s immune system may be equipped with tools to combat the development of cancerous cells. However, if the immune system is compromised (such as through natural aging), the opportunity for cancer to develop can rise. This is also true if conditions for cancer escalate (such as spending more time in the sun).
So why do some people end up getting cancer and not others? Why is it more extreme in some people and not others? Although cancer cells have a lot of influencing factors and are unlikely to ever behave the same, even within the same body, there are a few ways to understand the commonalities that lead to cancer.
The three genetic “drivers” of cancer are:
Proto-oncogenes: If proto-oncogenes—which are necessary in healthy cell life cycles—begin behaving abnormally, they may allow cells to survive and multiply even if they are damaged. Once they begin encouraging the pathway for cancer cells, they are oncogenes (cancer genes).
Tumor suppressor genes: These genes also play a role in healthy cell division; therefore, when they are not functioning correctly, they may lead to abnormal divisions and lead to the development of malignant tumors.
DNA repair genes: These genes help prohibit mutations that lead to the creation of cancer cells. When they stop functioning correctly, it is likely to lead to cancer.
How Does Cancer Spread?
A primary characteristic of cancer cells is their proclivity toward multiplying and spreading away from their source of origin in the body. This is known as metastasis.
Regardless of where the cancer spreads, it is always a metastatic condition of the original cancer. However, because the metastatic cancer has originated from the primary cancer cells, they look the same and have many of the same abnormalities, at the molecular level, when inspected under a microscope.
If cancer is metastatic, the goal might be to control or stop the spread of the cancer cells. This may be life-preserving (as many metastatic conditions can turn fatal) or life-prolonging. It might also be a palliative treatment only, intended for comfort and pain relief.
What Are Common Types of Cancer?
Cancer is often referred to by the place in the body where it originates (or the primary source); this can be extremely broad (such as skin cancer) or specific (such as squamous cell cancer). Some cancer types are more common than others, and some are specific to certain ages, sexes, or backgrounds.
Here are some categorical cancer cell types:
Epithelial cells, which cover the surfaces of the body, form carcinomas, the most common kind of cancer. But they are named according to which kind of epithelial cell forms the carcinoma.
Adenocarcinoma develops in cells that create fluid (for example, within glandular tissue). Therefore, it is usually linked with prostate, colon, or breast cancer.
Basal cell carcinoma forms in the lowest, outer layer of the skin (the base of the epidermis).
Squamous cell carcinoma typically forms just beneath the outer surface of the skin, in squamous cells. But those cells can also be found in the lungs, bladder, stomach, intestines, and kidneys. This type of cancer might be referred to as epidermoid carcinomas.
Transitional cell carcinoma starts in what is known as transitional epithelium (also known as urothelium). It’s traditionally linked with cancers of the bladder, part of the kidneys, ureters, and a few other organs whose lining behaves similarly.
Cancer can form in bone (the most common type of which is osteosarcoma). It can also form in fibrous tissue (like ligaments), blood vessels, lymph nodes, muscle, or fat. Soft tissue cancers might be liposarcoma, leiomyosarcoma, malignant fibrous histiocytoma, or dermatofibrosarcoma, among other sarcomas.
Not all cancers lead to cell buildup in the form of tumors. Blood cancer, or cancer that develops in blood-forming tissue, is one exception. Leukemia is a blood cancer that originates in bone marrow and is formed of abnormal white blood cell buildup. Due to the high volume of abnormal cells, there are not enough normal white blood cells created to provide a robust immune response. Leukemia is named and grouped based upon its escalation rate and the blood cell where it begins: acute (fast-growing) or chronic (slow-moving) / lymphoblastic or myeloid.
Lymphoma starts in white blood cells. Abnormal lymphocytes (which are either T cells or B cells) build up in lymph nodes and lymph vessels, as well as in other organs of the body. Lymphoma can be one of two types: Hodgkin lymphoma, which comprises Reed-Sternberg cells (or B cells), or non-Hodgkin lymphoma, which can form in the B or T cells.
Cancer is malicious in its abuse of the immune system, which is intended to seek out and destroy damaged cells before they can multiply and cause harm. And in fact, cancer can form in immunity cells like plasma cells (which is known as multiple myeloma, plasma cell myeloma, or Kahler disease). These abnormal cells are then known as myeloma cells, which grow and collect in bone and create tumors in bones.
Skin gets its color from cells that make melanin, and those cells are called melanocytes. If cancer forms in those cells, it’s a skin cancer known as melanoma. In some cases, melanoma can also form in non-skin tissue where melanin is present (for example, the eye).
Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors
How are brain and spinal cord tumors differentiated? They’re named for where they’re located and what type of cell is involved. Although this naming convention can make it sound severe, not all brain and spinal cord tumors are malignant.
What Might Be Confused for Cancer?
There are several types of tumors that are not necessarily malignant growths. Here are a few examples:
Germ Cell Tumors: This type of tumor can occur anywhere in the body because it originates in the body’s cells. It develops as sperm or eggs and may or may not become cancerous.
Neuroendocrine Tumors: Upon a cue from the nervous system, certain cells release hormones into the bloodstream. If these particular cells develop tumors, they will begin to overproduce those important hormones, which can result in a multitude of responses from the body. However, neuroendocrine tumors are not always malignant.
Carcinoid Tumors: One kind of neuroendocrine tumor is a carcinoid tumor; these are typically created in nervous system cells in a specific area of the body: the gastrointestinal system. These tumors do not grow quickly; however, they can possibly spread to the liver and other locations proximal to the rectum and small intestine, where they are likely to originate. They might also release hormones (like serotonin) that will eventually lead to advanced symptoms and carcinoid syndrome (cancer).
Additionally, not all tissue changes indicate cancer, although they may later become cancerous if they go undetected and untreated. It is important to monitor tissue changes in order to ensure they do not become cancerous in the future.
Examples of these non-cancerous tissue changes include:
Hyperplasia: Tissue cells might begin to multiply rapidly and build up, causing what is known as hyperplasia. This can be difficult to detect under a microscope, because the tissue structure can still appear normal. One cause for hyperplasia is chronic irritation.
Dysplasia: Similar to hyperplasia, dysplasia presents as an abnormal multiplication and collection of tissue cells. However, this condition is detectable under a microscope, because the structure of the tissue itself is affected. For this reason, dysplasia is considered more advanced and might be more likely to lead to cancer. A good example of this is “dysplastic nevus,” which is a visible mole on the skin that should be monitored in case it becomes skin cancer, aka a melanoma (even if the mole is originally benign, and most are likely to remain benign).
Carcinoma In Situ: Of the three examples presented here, this would be considered the most advanced. Carcinoma in situ is not cancerous, but some medical practitioners might refer to it as a “Stage 0” cancer because it is more likely to become cancerous. For this reason, they are likely to advise monitoring or even treating the tissue change.