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40 Facts About Cancer

Updated on November 26, 2015
Aelbarsha profile image

Abdelhakim Elbarsha is a consultant gastroenterologist, endoscopist, and an assistant university professor.

Fact 1

Cancer is not one disease

There are more than 200 types of cancer. Each type affects different tissue or organ in the body.

Because body tissues are different in their structures , types of cancer also differ in their structures. This would make symptoms and disease progression for each type of cancer distinctive.

For example: a patient with cancer of the urinary bladder, when compared to a patient with cancer of the gallbladder, both have a type of cancer that develop from within the lining of a hollow organ (the urinary bladder and the gallbladder), and if we assume that both of them has the same cancer mass size (let's say 2 cm in size), the same age and gender, the former patient will have a better prognosis than the latter (i.e better response to treatment and therefore greaterchance of survival).

So both are cancers, but both are entirely different diseases.

Fact 2

One type of cancer may be actually many subtypes

Cancer subtypes are different from each other in many aspects from the cellular level, to the course of the disease, to the behavior of the disease and its response to treatment.

For example if two patients have one type of cancer involving the lymphatic system, called as “Lymphoma”, they may have actually two subtypes of Lymphoma, that can be differentiated from each other by the differences in their cell membrane protein composition.

Otherwise Lymphoma cells may be closely similar to each other when examined under the ordinary light microscope.

Fact 3

Cancer may not be a solid tumor

We all know that the word “tumor” is an alternative to the word “cancer”, but the word tumor may indicate also a benign disease.

Some cancers are not tumors, because there is no mass, as in the case of “Blood Cancer” or “Leukemias”, or in the case of some cancers involving the the lymphatic cells, known as “Lymphoma”.

Leukemia cells are generated in the bone marrow and are liberated in the blood. Each cell circulates freely without forming a clump or mass with other cells, therefore they do not build-up a tumor.

Fact 4

Cancer cells are highly variable in appearance under light microscopy

Cancer cells may look like normal cells when examined by the ordinary light microscope, but they may also have a bizarre and a very abnormal appearance, with dense and irregular nuclei, that is very distinct from the normal tissue cells.

Fact 5

Some cancers are actually not cancers

Some types of tumors usually treated as cancers, are not composed of malignant or cancer cells, because they arise in a part of the body where if they are not treated they will definitely lead to serious complications and death.

This is true in tumors affecting the brain. If a benign tumor arises in the brain, it could be fatal if left untreated. This is an enough reason why we call it cancer or a malignant tumor.

The presence of such tumors in the brain close to vital areas controlling respiratory function for example, may lead to respiratory compromise when they expand and exert pressure on that area.

Fact 6

The chance of cancer cells formation in our body is always there

This may be scary. During every single cell division in the body, there is a chance for certain errors in the genetic material to occur.

These errors are called mutations. These mutations occur in the “genes” ( the unit of the genetic material), and can result in an abnormal and uncontrolled proliferation of cells, which is cancer.

Fact 7

Cancer is caused by many factors

In most instances, there is no single cause that can be attributable to the development of cancer.

Some cancers are known to be caused by a single factor. For example, in the case of a particular type of “Gastric Lymphoma”, the cause may be a germ called “Helicobacter Pylori”.

But even in cancers with a single identifiable cause, it seems that other minor unknown, probably environmental and/or genetic factors, may play a role, since not all patients infected with Helicobacter Pylori will have that particular type of Lymphoma.

Fact 8

Cancer risk factors may be modifiable

Risk factors for cancer are those cancer triggers that are present within our bodies as genetic material, or surrounding us everywhere in the environment, like food, drinks, viruses, chemicals, sunlight, and even air we breath.

Cigarette smoking is a well known risk factor for lung cancer, although it is not the only one, since other factors like advancing in age also increase the risk, though not as big as smoking.

We can modify the first risk factor (smoking) to reduce the risk of cancer, but we can't modify the second one, which is age.

In general, cancer prevention programs depend largely on modifying risk factors for cancer.

Fact 9

Risk of cancer can be acquired by migration

When somebody migrates from one country or region with low occurrence of certain type of cancer to another country or region with high occurrence of that type of cancer, he/she may acquire the same risk of having that type cancer as do the population of his/her new residence.

This is explained by a change in surrounding environmental factors.

An example of this is the increased risk of breast cancer in Hispanic women who migrated and settled in the United States.

Fact 10

Risk of cancer increases with age

The reason for this is the increased rate of mutations affecting the genetic material during cell division.

Fact 11

There are some people (families) seem to be immune against cancer

Some families have lower rate of occurrence of cancer. The explanation is their genetic background, since many cancers have genetic predisposition.

Fact 12

There are people (families) who seem to be highly vulnerable for cancer

Some families have genetic predisposition to develop cancer, in addition to possibly sharing a similar life style and environment. Many of these families have their members affected by different types of cancers.

For example, an aggregate of some types of cancer may occur within the family tree, like cancers of the colon, stomach, urinary bladder, and skin. This familial occurrence of cancer is termed as Lynch Syndrome.

Fact 13

Cancer can be highly preventable

In addition to improving the life style, there are some measures that are strong enough to dramatically decrease the risk of cancer.

One example is the vaccination against Hepatitis B virus, a major cause of liver cancer worldwide.

Vaccination decrease the risk of this type of cancer by preventing new Hepatitis B virus infections .

Another good example is smoking cessation to prevent lung cancer.

In fact, and broadly speaking, smoking cessation is the most powerful single measure in cancer prevention.

Fact 14

Cancer can be highly predicted in some persons before it occurs

There are cancers which develop from existing lesions in the body, so that if these lesions are discovered, we can ascertain that the chance of having cancer in the future is almost 100 %.

Patients with hereditary colonic polyps (benign tumors in the colon) are at high risk of getting colon cancer in a younger age than usual, and almost all patients with these polyps (which may be a crowd of hundreds) will have cancer before the age of forty.

Fact 15

Food may cause cancer


Food additives can be responsible for cancer causation.

“Nitrates” used as preservative for meat, are converted in our body into “nitrites” which are carcinogens (i.e they induce cancer cell formation).

Fatty food and dietary sugar may increase the risk of colon cancer.

Fruits treated with pesticides are another great concern as pesticides can cause cancer.

Fact 16

Food may prevent cancer

Green tea, coffee , berries, avocados, garlic, and dark chocolate are said to be protective against cancer.

High fiber diet is also a associated with a lower risk of colon cancer.

Food can prevent cancer due to its anti-oxidant content. Anti-oxidants are known to cleanse and remove the harmful molecules called “free radicals” from the body.

Free radical can damage cells and cause unwanted mutations that can finally lead to cancer cells.

Fact 17

Cancer is strongly related to immune system

Our immune system normally destructs cancer cells once they evolve, so it kills cancer from the start.

But if our immune system is weak, the newly formed cancer cells may win the battle, and they further grow and divide to form a tumor (cancer).

In patients receiving medications that suppress the immune system, the risk of getting cancer will be higher.

Some cancer types are treated by medications that stimulate the immune system, which in turn help defeating cancer cells.

The psychological status is believed to be determinant of the immune system ability to fight cancer. Patients with high mood may fight cancer better than patients who are depressed.

Fact 18

Cancer starts with no symptoms

The origin of cancer mass is actually one cell. This cell, in which the mutation occurred, will rapidly proliferate into similar immortal cells.

As far as the cancer mass doesn't cause pressure on any adjacent nerves, blood vessels, respiratory tracts, or any other sensitive tissues, or it doesn't secrete any substance that causes disturbances in the functions of distant body organs, there may be actually no symptoms at all.

Some cancers may become silent for months before they start producing symptoms.

Fact 19

Cancer can cause almost any symptom

According to the site where the cancer arises in the body, symptoms will vary. Since cancer can develop in any tissue or organ, you can imagine how variable the symptom combinations can be.

Some symptoms may be strange and may actually mislead the doctor in making the correct diagnosis.

An interesting example is when a patient is diagnosed with Schizophrenia based on change in behavior and experiencing hallucinations, while the diagnosis can be unexpectedly a tumor in the frontal lobe of the brain, the lobe in which a person's behavior and mood are normally controlled.

This is an extreme example, just to show how strange the initial presentation can be.

Fact 20

Symptomatic cancer doesn't necessarily mean a late disease

Symptoms when found to be due to cancer, may indicate a late disease in certain types of cancer, like cancer of the pancreas; while symptomatic patients may still have cancers in their early stages as in the case of rectal cancer presenting with blood with bowel motion.

Fact 21

Trivial symptoms may be caused by cancer

When somebody suffers minor symptoms which do not disturb normal life, he/she may ignore them as it is commonly believed that cancer causes troublesome or scary symptoms, and not minor or usual ones.

Such symptoms are ignored because they are usually caused by common self-limiting diseases.

For example, hiccups may be caused by a cancer irritating the diaphragm!

The reverse is truewhen somebody coughs up blood, and it is just a simple acute bronchitis (inflammation of the respiratory tracts).

Fact 22

Discovering asymptomatic cancer doesn't necessarily mean early disease

Cancer may be discovered by chance when a person is tested for other disease or when a routine screening test for cancer is undertaken.

A chest X-ray done as a part of pre-employment examination, may reveal a shadow in the lung indicating a lung cancer which is still asymptomatic, though it can be quite late to be cured.

Fact 23

Cancer doesn't cause pain unless invading sensory nerve

Many people believe that cancer is a painful disease, and if there is no pain, there is no cancer.

Cancer can cause pain only if it invades sensory nerves (nerves which conduct sensation impulses to the brain), or when it invades an organ rich in sensory nerve endings (e.g the liver capsule, a layer of fibrous tissue enveloping the liver, which can be infiltrated by liver cancer, resulting in pain).

Fact 24

Cancer may cause symptoms not related to the tumor mass itself

Cancer may cause symptoms by exerting pressure on the adjacent tissues or because of its spread to other parts of the body, forming new small and growing masses called “metastases”.

Symptoms are not always a result of these effects, but they may be due to substances or chemicals secreted by the cancer cells into the blood to affect the function of some other organs.

An example is the occurrence of clots within the veins in a limb (a leg or an arm) seen in some patients with cancer of the pancreas.

This happens not because the cancer invades the vein, but it results from alterations in the blood clotting functions secondary to chemicals made by cancer cells.

Fact 25

Cancer can be detected early and easily just by naked eyes

A person, him/herself may discover that he/she got cancer, or at least got something wrong, just by naked eyes!

This is true in case of cancers that arise in the visible part of the body.

Skin cancer is the best example, as patient may also be already educated to monitor any changes in the size and shape of skin moles or birthmarks.

Fact 26

Cancer can be totally curable

If cancer is discovered very early, with no direct or distant spread to other organs, it can be excised by surgical operation, occasionally with adjuvant (additional) chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy.

Certain blood cancer are curable by replacing their cancer cell generating bone marrow with a healthy bone marrow, a process know as bone marrow transplantation.

Fact 27

Some cancers can be screened for

Screening for cancer is a very effective method for detecting early cancer or detecting lesions that can transform into cancer.

Screening using colonoscopy (endoscopic examination of the colon) starting from the age of fifty to detect colon cancer or polyps is one of the most widely performed cancer screening tools.

Polyps are benign tumors that have the potential to become a cancer. If a polyp is found it can be excised easily during the endoscopic examination.

Another famous cancer screening method is the breast self-examination and mammography for the early detection of breast cancer.

Unluckily, there are no approved screening methods for the majority of cancers.

Fact 28

Imaging usually cannot pick-up early cancer nor small spread foci

As mentioned above, cancer starts from one microscopic cancer cell that multiply to a large number of cells to form a fleshy mass.

The different available imaging techniques are rapidly improving, and even very small cancer growth may be detected.

Even though, imaging can still miss small early cancers, and a radiologist reporting a Computed Tomography (CT) scan film as “normal” might actually miss a very small tumor.

Fact 29

Treatment is not always chemotherapy

The bad news of having cancer doesn't always mean a need for chemotherapy. There are other medications used to treat cancer patients which are different from chemotherapeutics.

These include synthetic hormones utilized for treating patients with breast cancer and cancer of the prostate.

Treatment with hormones will not cause hair loss, vomiting or diarrhea, as in the case of chemotherapy.

Additionally, some cancers are treated with immune system boosting injections, to activate the immune system, an important weapon against cancer. This “Immune-therapy” is usually of little side effects when compared with chemotherapy.

Fact 30

Cancer's degree of response to chemotherapy cannot be predicted

Some cancers respond to chemotherapy very well, and some do not.

Unluckily, chemotherapy is not always effective for a given type of cancer.

Fact 31

Treatment is not the same for two patients with the same type of cancer

There are many factors determining which treatment modality is appropriate to treat a particular patient with a particular cancer.

These factors include age, co-existing disease (e.g heart disease), type of cancer, and stage of cancer (early or advanced).

Thus, two patients with the same cancer may be treated quite differently.

Fact 32

Cancers may change its response to chemotherapy and become resistant

Many patients treated for blood cancer (Leukemia) may respond very well, and the disease gets remission.

But if the disease recurs, it tends to be resistant to chemotherapy despite being previously well responding. In this case, cancer cells develop their own ability to resist medications.

Fact 33

Apparently cured cancer can be still not cured

The definition of cure of cancer depends on many things. A tumor can be totally excised by the surgeon, and a subsequent CT scan examination may not show any tumor in any other distant organ.

Very minute seeds of tumor may not be visualized by any imaging modality.

Fact 34

Cancer may be cured by just antibiotics

This seems exciting!

Only one cancer can be treated by antibiotics, frequently without any additional treatment options.

This is “MALT Lymphoma” in the stomach. (MALT=Mucosal Associated Lymphoid Tissue). This type of Lymphoma is caused by the infection with the germ Helicobacter Pylori .

This germ invades the lining of the stomach and may cause inflammation and in only few cases this may progress to this type of Lymphoma.

If the Lymphoma is in early stage, treatment with antibiotics will suffice and Lymphoma is cured.

Fact 35

Some cancers which are not curable can be suppressed by certain medications for years

The fact that some cancers which are not amenable to complete cure may be suppressed and kept stationary without further progress (or may even regress) is very attractive because incurable cancers are managed just by palliation of symptoms and minimizing the suffering.

There are medications in the form of tablets, with tolerable side effects, which can halt cancer cell activity, preventing further cancer growth, and avoiding the need for more toxic chemotherapeutics.

Such treatment makes the patient's quality of life favorable while the cancer is restrained for many years.

A fatal type of blood cancer called “Chronic Myeloid Leukemia” , can be suppressed for years by an oral medication with the above mentioned properties.

Fact 36

Chemotherapy or radiotherapy do not mean palliation of incurable cancer

It is not true when a doctor says “chemo” or “radio”, he/she means that it is the end of life.

Chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy before or after surgical extraction of a cancer are considered a form of potentially curative therapy.

Fact 37

Cancer only rarely spread by biopsy or surgery

A common belief is when a doctor attempts to take a biopsy specimen from a tumor, either through an endoscope, by a liver biopsy needle, or even surgically, the doctor's instruments will seed the cancer cells everywhere in the body.

When a specimen is taken by following the standards of care, this may only rarely occur. Even though, when it occurs it involves the track through which a needle is passed within the biopsied tissue.

This should never make a patient hesitant to let the doctor to do it, since specific cancer management is almost impossible without examining a tissue biopsy.

Fact 38

Cancer, uncommonly, may be diagnosed and treated even without obtaining a tissue specimen

Liver cancer is one of the common cancers in some parts in the world. It's characterized by two things : rich in blood (highly vascular), with very characteristic imaging appearance on CT scan examination; and it secretes a substance (a tumor marker) that can be detected by blood analysis.

These two properties, are sufficient to make the correct diagnosis and to proceed further to treatment.

Fact 39

Cancer cells are not affected by sugar restriction

It's sad to see patients with advanced, and incurable cancer losing weight, and become emaciated.

Loss of appetite and weight are consequences of chemicals produced by the tumor, which are responsible for blocking the patient's desire to eat. This may be further worsened by chemotherapy.

Because of this ongoing loss in calories, patients usually need nutritional supplementation, via an intravenous catheter infusion of nutrient solution, or even via a feeding tube.

Supplementation with nutrients, including glucose (the sugar consumed by normal cells, and cancer cells as well), will not augment tumor growth.

A cancer will continue growing whether a patient is well nourished or totally starving, so he/she should be fed by the most appropriate and convenient way of feeding.

Fact 40

We can follow a life style for effective cancer prevention

Fighting cancer has multiple lines of defense strategies. A person can effectively follow an “anti-cancer” life style.

The first defense line is to avoid the major and potential causes of cancer.

Cigarette smoking (and tobacco use in general) is the first to fight, either in the form of active smoking, when a person him/herself smokes, or in the form passive smoking, when a person inhales smoke blown from nearby smokers.

Excess sunlight exposure, is a major cause of skin cancer known as “Melanoma”. Using sunscreen is recommended when a prolonged sun exposure is expected as when on the beach.

A healthy diet should generally be free from preservatives as much as can be, and rich in natural, unprocessed food stuffs. A low salt, low sugar diet is also recommended.

A normal body weight and regular exercise are the goals to optimize our bodies to fight diseases in general, not only cancer.

Overweight and obese people are at higher risk of getting cancers in general, compared with those with normal body weight.

Screening for cancer is also effective for prevention:

Colon cancer screening is done by colonoscopic examination of the colon starting from the age of fifty..

Screening for breast cancer is by mammography (special X-ray examination of the breasts), and by regular breast self-examination.

Prostatic cancer screening is performed by blood analysis of a certain “tumor marker”, and so on.

We should not underestimate the fact that we can modify or alter our habits and daily life style to prevent disease and cancer.

The health promoting effect of such measures is proved by scientific evidence, and it remains the golden advise that any person or patient can get it form his/her doctor.

Do you think that cancer is a matter of luck?

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© 2015 Abdelhakim Elbarsha


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    • Aelbarsha profile image

      Abdelhakim Elbarsha 2 years ago from Benghazi/Libya

      I am glad to hear that! Thank you very much!

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for sharing a very informative and detailed hub, Aelbarsha.