Cancer Cells: What Is Going On in My Body?

To put it simply, cancer cells are cells gone rogue, meaning that they no longer respond to many of the signals that control normal processes of cell growth and death. What causes it, and how does it happen?

The difference between cancer and normal cells

Cancer cells originate within tissues from normal cells when a series of mutations leads them to continue to grow and divide out of control. This has a severe impact on the normal functioning of organs or tissues affected by cancer. Moreover, unlike normal cells that remain in the region where they originated, cancer cells have the ability to both invade nearby tissues and spread to distant areas of the body.

Normal cellCancer cell
Grows when needed
Grows uncontrollable
Stays within tissue boundariesCan invade nearby tissues
Sticks to nearby cellsMay spread to other regions of the body
Has a defined lifespanCan be immortal

Types of cancer

Any type of cells in the body can become cancerous, start to divide uncontrollably, and, thus, cause tumor formation. This is how cancer cells damage our organism — fast and significant growth of tumors seriously disturbs and may cause lethal damage to it. Because of the great number of initial cell source types, a hundred distinct types of tumors can form that will vary considerably in their behavior and response to treatment.

The names of the tumors are derived from the type of cell from which the tumor arises. For example, the most common tumors that originate from the malignancies of epithelial cells are called carcinomas; followed by sarcomas, which are malignancies of connective tissues, such as bone, cartilage, and muscle; leukemia or lymphomas that arise from blood-forming or immune system cells, respectively. Determining the tissue of the cancerous cells’ origin allows us to select the best treatment option.

It is important to mention that tumors are also classified according to their malignancy. Having a tumor does not necessarily mean having cancer. In this case, two types of tumors are distinguished — benign and malignant. Therefore, when a patient is diagnosed with a tumor, it is important to first determine which of these two types it belongs to.

A benign tumor, such as a common skin wart, remains in the same place where it originates and neither invades nor spreads to surrounding tissues and distant body sites. Although cells proliferate incessantly, they do not spread uncontrollably, and such tumors, in almost all cases, can be removed by surgery.

A malignant tumor (properly referred to as cancer) is capable of metastasizing — invading surrounding normal tissues and spreading throughout the body via the circulatory or lymphatic systems. Those metastatic tumors are no longer localized, meaning they can spread elsewhere in the body and can no longer be controlled. This cancer's ability not only complicates its timely detection but also makes it difficult to select the optimal treatment strategy.

Prevention and regular health checks to identify newly formed tumors play a key role in the successful treatment of cancer.

How exactly does cancer develop?

As mentioned above, the process begins with a change (mutation) in a single tissue cell, leading to its abnormal proliferation (uncontrollable growth and division). This is the first stage of the cancer development, called tumor initiation.

This uncontrolled cell proliferation further results in the formation of a population of clonally derived tumor cells. In other words, primary cancer. Once a cancer forms, its cells don't remain stable but continue to mutate. These new mutations allow cancer to adapt and evade the damaging effects of various treatments, and that’s how cancer resistance to chemotherapy and targeted therapy drugs develops. Recent advances in science and medicine make it possible to determine the key mutations in a particular tumor and thus select a successful treatment strategy by circumventing the developed resistance to certain drugs.

What causes cancer, and is it possible to avoid it?

Mutations in cancer cells can form due to heredity (determined by genetics), but more often, they are caused by carcinogens (cancer-causing substances) in the environment (including radiation, chemicals, viruses, and others).

All carcinogens can be classified into two main categories — initiating agents and tumor promoters. Radiation and many chemical carcinogens are generally referred to as initiating agents since they act by damaging DNA and inducing mutations within the cell. Some of the initiating agents that contribute to human cancers include solar ultraviolet radiation (the major cause of skin cancer), carcinogenic chemicals in tobacco smoke, and aflatoxin (a potent liver carcinogen produced by some molds that contaminate improperly stored supplies of peanuts and grains).

Another type of carcinogen is tumor promoters. They contribute to cancer development by stimulating cell proliferation rather than by inducing mutations. Some of the tumor promoters’ examples could be hormones (usually used during various hormone therapies, forcing specialists to carefully assess potential damage and benefit to the patient) and viruses. For example, the hormone estrogen can stimulate the proliferation of cells of the uterine endometrium. Thus, exposure to excess estrogen significantly increases the likelihood that a woman will develop endometrial cancer. Another example could be hepatitis B and hepatitis C viruses, both of which can cause liver cancer.

The table below shows examples of carcinogens found in the environment and the cancers they can cause. Although it is difficult to avoid all carcinogens in the environment, it is worth trying to minimize contact with them by using protective equipment when working in areas where certain types of carcinogens are present and by using organic products that are almost free of preservatives.

CarcinogensCancer siteFound in
ArsenicLungs, skinMedications
AsbestosMesothelioma, lungsRoof and floor tiles
BenzeneBlood and lymph nodesPetroleum, paints, detergent, rubber
BerylliumLungsMissile fuel, nuclear reactor
CadmiumProstateBatteries, paints
ChromiumLungsPreservatives, pigments, paints
Ethylene oxideBloodRipening agent for fruits
NickelNose, lungsBatteries, ferrous alloys
RadonLungsHigh gasses concentrations in, mines, cellars
Vinyl chlorideLiverGasses in refrigerators, glues
SmokeLungs, colonCigars, air pollution, car smoke
GasolineLungs, bloodPetroleum
FormaldehydeNose, pharynxSolutions used in hospitals/laboratories
SootSkinSoot in chimneys
Ionizing radiationBone marrowRadiology procedures
Hepatic virus — B and CLiverUnprotected sex, none-sterile needles and syringes
HPV/Herpes virusesCervix, skin, head/neckMultiple sexual partners
Helico-bacteria pylori
StomachChronic bacterial infection

Cancer treatment

There are several types of cancer treatment strategies. The types of treatment that patients receive depend on the type of cancer they have and how advanced it is. Treatment has to be personalized to every patient in order to achieve the best results. For this reason, all relevant factors have to be taken into consideration.

Treatment typeDescription
Biomarker testing for cancer treatmentBiomarker testing is a way to look for genes, proteins, and other substances (called biomarkers or tumor markers) that can provide cancer information. Biomarker testing can help doctors choose a cancer treatment.
ChemotherapyChemotherapy is a type of cancer treatment that uses drugs to kill cancer cells.
Hormone therapyHormone therapy is a treatment that slows or stops the growth of breast and prostate cancers that use hormones to grow.
HyperthermiaHyperthermia is a type of treatment in which body tissue is heated to as high as 45°C to help damage and kill cancer cells with little or no harm to normal tissue.
ImmunotherapyImmunotherapy is a type of cancer treatment that helps your immune system fight cancer.
Photodynamic therapyPhotodynamic therapy uses a drug activated by light to kill cancer and other abnormal cells.
Radiation therapyRadiation therapy is a type of cancer treatment that uses high doses of radiation to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors.
Stem cell transplantStem cell transplants are procedures that restore stem cells that grow into blood cells in people who have had theirs destroyed by high doses of chemotherapy or radiation therapy.
SurgerySurgery is a procedure in which a surgeon removes cancer from the patient body.
Targeted therapy
Targeted therapy is a type of cancer treatment that targets the changes in cancer cells that help them grow, divide, and spread.

Nowadays, healthy nutrition and lifestyle are considered increasingly important components of successful cancer treatment. A variety of unproven methods, such as avoiding products with large amounts of carbohydrates, have been routinely recommended to fight cancer. The results of such experiments usually show little success. Various studies documented that different tumor types demonstrate different sensitivity to the deprivation of amino acids, such as asparagine, arginine, methionine, glutamine, and cysteine, or the major energy source glucose. It is still not entirely clear which nutrients or vitamins for different diseases are cancer-causing or cancer-fighting. Therefore, unless a doctor has advised a specific diet tailored to a specific tumor, the most common recommendation is to eat a generally healthy diet, maintain physical activity, and allow enough time for sleep and rest.

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