Cancer Basics

A cancer diagnosis is the beginning of a personal journey for each individual. Everyone has a unique set of beliefs, values and ways of coping. You will learn and grow as you go through the cancer experience. Many people are surprised to find a new inner strength and courage. Healing can happen on physical, emotional and spiritual levels. This can even bring a renewed outlook on life.

What Is Cancer

All cancers begin in the body’s cells. Normal cells grow and divide to produce more cells as older cells die off. This keeps the body healthy. However, if the genetic material (DNA) of a cell is damaged or changed, the abnormal cells can invade other tissues. New cells form when the body does not need them or old cells don't die when they should. These cancer cells can spread through the blood and lymph systems to other parts of the body. The extra cells form a mass of tissue called a growth or tumor.

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) defines cancer as a group of more than 100 related but separate diseases. Cancer is categorized by where the disease begins in the body and not by where it has spread.

The Main Categories Of Cancer

Not all tumors are cancerous. They can be benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous). Cells in malignant tumors are abnormal and divide without control or order. They metastasize or spread and destroy the tissue around them. Cancer cells spread through the blood and lymph systems.

Signs and Symptoms

Some people experience early signs or symptoms that something is wrong. They may experience fatigue or weight changes that cannot be explained. Others might have a type of cancer that develops slowly and has no early symptoms.

Cancer may be discovered through:

Diagnostic Tests

If cancer is suspected, your health care provider will schedule tests to confirm a diagnosis. These are some of the most common tests:

Before you go through testing, ask your health care provider if some types of tests are better for your situation than others. For example, if you want to have children in the future, your provider may decide to avoid certain types of procedures. Ask a friend or loved one to go with you to medical appointments.

Some medications used during testing have side effects, such as fatigue. Be sure to tell your health care provider about any physical and emotional concerns that you have as you go through the diagnosis process. Concerns could include depression, fatigue, pain, sexual issues, digestion and urinary or bowel problems. Information that you share can help your provider make the diagnosis and plan for the best treatment.

Cancer Stages

Your health care provider may prescribe further testing to identify the stage of cancer. The stage describes how cancer has affected the body. Cancer stages are based on:

With certain types of cancer, health care providers use the term “grade” to describe the way thin slices of cancer tissue appear when they are viewed under a microscope. Grading generally ranges from very well differentiated or nearly normal (grade 1) to very poorly differentiated (grade 5). Lower numbers (Stages I and II) are used for the early stages of cancer. Higher numbers (Stages III and IV) indicate that the disease is more advanced.

Early diagnosis and treatment methods have greatly improved the chance of recovery for many types of cancer. Testing has become more accurate. It is a good idea to get other medical opinions before making decisions about treatment. Getting more than one medical opinion may help you make the best decision.