In my most recent blog you will recall that we attempted to ‘get our heads round’ the actual meaning of the word “cancer”. You will also recall that I ‘said’ that cancer cells are not outside ‘invaders’ but are our own body cells, which, for whatever reason, are now acting without the necessary ground rules for normal functioning. Thus, should a cell begin to operate in this aberrant and uncontrolled manner (i.e. if the normal mechanisms are for whatever reason, suspended or changed or behave without their normal patterns of control), then that cell becomes undifferentiated (or amorphous) and takes on an unrestrained and chaotic pattern of growth to produce a lump or tumour·, otherwise referred to as a “mass”.
It is also the case that tumours are given names to indicate the kind of cell structure from which they have originated. An example of this would be the “leukaemias”, which are cancers of the white blood cells (leukocytes) and bone marrow. Tumours of other structures like bone, muscle and cartilage, are known as “sarcomas”. Lymphomas are cancers of cells from the lymphatic system·· and perhaps the best known term “carcinoma”, refers to affected cells lining the bodies cavities such as breast and colon. These by the way, are by no means the only such terms describing and defining cancers but they are the ones which are most widely and commonly used.
Left untreated, cancerous changes of the kind described above will cause increasing major problems of bodily dysfunction and malfunction. Eventually, vital organs are likely to become affected, impairing their capacity to operate normally. This will almost certainly be accompanied by general debility and increasing weakness, ‘triggering’ – where remaining untreated – the onset of irreversible illness and ultimately death.
Let me once again emphasize what is the simple truth; namely that in many instances nowadays, cure is a definite and genuine prospect, especially where symptoms are promptly reported. In other cases, palliation or control of the disease and/or symptoms, affording good quality of life is often an achievable aim. If honesty is to prevail, as surely it must, it has to be acknowledged that there are still instances, e.g. certain tumour types and advanced disease, where treatment options are decidedly limited.
It is most frequently at this point in the progression of malignant disease that Palliative Medicine comes into its own. More will be written in future postings available on this website, concerning the role and status of Palliative Care. There is also a growing literature hypothesizing and evaluating the efficacy of complementary approaches to the alleviation of pain, anxiety and depressed (low) mood. Indeed, the inroads – admittedly on some fronts more than others – that cancer research is making, both to treatment of the disease and to patients’ and carers’ quality of life, cannot be over-emphasized. Who knows what tomorrow will bring by way of cure or prevention?