Cancer is a group of diseases in which cells are aggressive (grow and divide without respect to normal limits), invasive (invade and destroy adjacent tissues), and sometimes metastatic (spread to other locations in the body). These three malignant properties of cancers differentiate them from benign tumors, which are self-limited in their growth and don't invade or metastasize (although some benign tumor types are capable of becoming malignant). Cancer may affect people at all ages, even fetuses, but risk for the more common varieties tends to increase with age. Cancer causes about 13% of all deaths. According to the American Cancer Society, 7.6 million people died from cancer in the world during 2007. Apart from humans, forms of cancer may affect other animals and plants.
Nearly all cancers are caused by abnormalities in the genetic material of the transformed cells. These abnormalities may be due to the effects of carcinogens, such as tobacco smoke, radiation, chemicals, or infectious agents.
Other cancer-promoting genetic abnormalities may be randomly acquired through errors in DNA replication, or are inherited, and thus present in all cells from birth. Complex interactions between carcinogens and the host genome may explain why only some develop cancer after exposure to a known carcinogen. New aspects of the genetics of cancer pathogenesis, such as DNA methylation, and microRNAs are increasingly being recognized as important.
Genetic abnormalities found in cancer typically affect two general classes of genes. Cancer-promoting oncogenes are often activated in cancer cells, giving those cells new properties, such as hyperactive growth and division, protection against programmed cell death, loss of respect for normal tissue boundaries, and the ability to become established in diverse tissue environments. Tumor suppressor genes are often inactivated in cancer cells, resulting in the loss of normal functions in those cells, such as accurate DNA replication, control over the cell cycle, orientation and adhesion within tissues, and interaction with protective cells of the immune system.
Cancer is usually classified according to the tissue from which the cancerous cells originate, as well as the normal cell type they most resemble. These are location and histology, respectively. A definitive diagnosis usually requires the histologic examination of a tissue biopsy specimen by a pathologist, although the initial indication of malignancy can be symptoms or radiographic imaging abnormalities. Most cancers can be treated and some cured, depending on the specific type, location, and stage. Once diagnosed, cancer is usually treated with a combination of surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. As research develops, treatments are becoming more specific for different varieties of cancer. There has been significant progress in the development of targeted therapy drugs that act specifically on detectable molecular abnormalities in certain tumors, and which minimize damage to normal cells. The prognosis of cancer patients is most influenced by the type of cancer, as well as the stage, or extent of the disease. In addition, histologic grading and the presence of specific molecular markers can also be useful in establishing prognosis, as well as in determining individual treatments.
Signs and symptoms:Roughly, cancer symptoms can be divided into three groups:* Local symptoms: unusual lumps or swelling (tumor), hemorrhage (bleeding), pain and/or ulceration. Compression of surrounding tissues may cause symptoms such as jaundice (yellowing the eyes and skin).
* Symptoms of metastasis (spreading): enlarged lymph nodes, cough and hemoptysis, hepatomegaly (enlarged liver), bone pain, fracture of affected bones and neurological symptoms. Although advanced cancer may cause pain, it is often not the first symptom.
* Systemic symptoms: weight loss, poor appetite, fatigue and cachexia (wasting), excessive sweating (night sweats), anemia and specific paraneoplastic phenomena, i.e. specific conditions that are due to an active cancer, such as thrombosis or hormonal changes.
Every symptom in the above list can be caused by a variety of conditions (a list of which is referred to as the differential diagnosis). Cancer may be a common or uncommon cause of each item.
Treatment:Cancer can be treated by surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, immunotherapy, monoclonal antibody therapy or other methods. The choice of therapy depends upon the location and grade of the tumor and the stage of the disease, as well as the general state of the patient (performance status). A number of experimental cancer treatments are also under development.
Complete removal of the cancer without damage to the rest of the body is the goal of treatment. Sometimes this can be accomplished by surgery, but the propensity of cancers to invade adjacent tissue or to spread to distant sites by microscopic metastasis often limits its effectiveness. The effectiveness of chemotherapy is often limited by toxicity to other tissues in the body. Radiation can also cause damage to normal tissue.
Because "cancer" refers to a class of diseases, it is unlikely that there will ever be a single "cure for cancer" any more than there will be a single treatment for all infectious diseases.