What is Cancer?

A first point to make is that strictly speaking, cancer is not just one but many illnesses: as many indeed as around two hundred, although several of these occur only very rarely. Such awarenesses can undoubtedly pose major concerns for patients and non-patients alike and so I intend to use this blog to both clarify and amplify what lies at the crux of the “many illnesses” concept.

The belief that cancer is some form of outside, hostile and virulent pathogen· possessing especially sinister forebodings for its hapless victim has, in the past, been (and sometimes still is) a widely held but wholly erroneous view. And it is precisely this belief that appears to ‘fuel’ that powerful and misleading sense of stigma that, again, in the past has been (and again, all too often still is) associated with it. The consequences of such mistaken beliefs can and all too frequently does wreak havoc with moment-to-moment peace of mind and self-perceived quality of life. On the other hand, knowledge of the facts, allied to just a modicum of insight into them can be powerful enhancers of individual coping ability.

The truth is that belief in an “outside-in” job is utterly groundless. Cancer cells are and remain our own body cells; but ones that for whatever reason are now functioning without very basic and necessary “ground rules”. What is also true is that the cause of this departure from the orderly and controlled may well have been influenced from the outside, e.g. environmentally, dietarily etc. Let me develop this point a little further.

This, in reality, is what the word “malignant” actually means; as opposed to “benign” (which refers to a non-invasive and relatively harmless tumour, such as a wart). However, an aberrant and uncontrolled malignant growth (tumour) is likely to invade, seriously damage and even destroy surrounding normal tissues. Also, as the tumour grows, groups or clumps of such cancer cells might eventually become detached and be carried through the lymphatic (or body drainage) system to the blood supply. Where this happens, they can and may well travel to distant sites and there metastasize to form secondary growths.

The human cell might be defined as the basic unit of life.  From birth to maturity and as the body grows in size and weight, cells greatly increase in number.  A fully mature individual is made up of more than a 1000 billion of them altogether.  Since everyone is comprised of a range of different types of cells – blood, skin, muscle, bone, soft tissue, organs such as the heart and the liver etc. – each from the outset is assigned to its own specialist function. The total cell population operates and is regulated by inbuilt mechanisms which adequately deal with the need for growth or repair and which ensures total cell order and control. In the next blog, I hope to complete this layman’s account of what cancer is and how it occurs.

 

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