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How Does Cancer Kill

Updated on September 18, 2012

In 2008 I lost my spouse of fourteen years to cancer. It was diagnosed in August of 2007, and on June 6th, 2008 at 11:37 PM it was all said and done, all within the sprint of ten months. As anyone who has lost someone they love to this disease knows, nothing on earth so calculatingly degrades the quality of life and potential for longevity as does cancer.

The Big "C" for cancer.
The Big "C" for cancer. | Source

Cancer And The Five Year Plan

Cancer Is The #2 Cause Of All Deaths

Only outdone by heart disease, cancer is the leading cause of death. One third of all those diagnosed with cancer, will perish within five years of that diagnosis. It would seem this monster has a will of its own and harbors secrets many cannot understand as to how it actually causes death. Even though cancer is on the decline and surviving it is on the rise in the USA, hearing the word "cancer" from your doctor can change everything you know about your life, and in a split second. The moment I heard the word in regard to my spouse, I set out to find information on exactly "how" cancer kills. This is what you will discover within this article. Possibly by better understanding it, cancer will hold less power within human day to day living.

Cancer: Benign or Malignant

Let's start out by gaining a better understanding of the terms surrounding cancer. When we hear the word "benign" we mostly understand that this is a good word when it pertains to cancer. A less welcome term is "malignant" which tells us something unpleasant is in the works.

How Does Cancer Get Started

The human body works on a cellular level with the "cells" being the manufactures of good or bad health. In a healthy human the cells grow and divide, then die in a natural and normal progression. However, sometimes, the cells get out of whack and a malfunction in production takes place. This malfunction can cause the cells to grow far too rapidly, or they don't die off as they should. These malfunctioning cells create masses of unneeded tissue, or tumors, that are going to be either "benign" or "malignant."

Good And Bad Cancer Terms

  • Benign Cells - This indicates a cell(s) is noncancerous, and most often not dangerous.
  • Malignant Cells - This indicates a cell(s) is cancerous, thus absolutely dangerous.

Cancer travels on the Lymphatic system's blood vessel highways in your body.
Cancer travels on the Lymphatic system's blood vessel highways in your body. | Source

Why Cancer Can Spread Quickly

Cancer begins its rapid attack on the body when malignant cells reproduce and grow large enough in mass to reach the lymph nodes. Because the lymphatic system harbors all of the highways these vessels travel upon to reach every organ found in the body, once cancer finds them, its rapid spread is immanent. In this same way, should cancer make it into the bloodstream, every cell of tissue found in the body can also be attacked, potentially forming new tumors throughout any and every system found inside and out of the body.

Cancer Is More Than One Disease

Yep, you read that right. Cancer is more than just one disease, and more correctly it is an entire army of related conditions. These conditions break out into three main battalions; carcinomas, leukemias and lymphomas, and sarcomas. Let's see just what each of these has to tell us.

1. Carcinomas - This is what we mostly see and experience within the family of cancers. These are cancers that attack the cells of the body that line or cover organs. Carcinomas include cancers that are found in;

2. Leukemias and Lymphomas - These are cancers found in the blood.

3. Sarcomas - For the most part, we find these battalions of cancer cells in younger people. They include cancers that attack the muscles and connective tissues, as with bone cancer.

How Does Cancer Actually Kill You

How cancer ends someone's life depends on the tissue it has attacked, and the vital systems it destroys. The number of ways this happens is as vast as the number of cells in the human body. To give you some idea as to how it kills in certain locations within the body, below is a very small list of possibilities.

How Much Do You Know About Cancer Facts

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How Cancer Kills The Brain, Lungs, Digestive System, Bones or Liver

  • In The Brain - Cancer kills when it causes a seizure or stroke.
  • In The Lungs - Cancer kills by reducing the amount of oxygen the body receives.
  • In The Digestive System - Cancer kills by stopping or greatly reducing the amount food nutrients the body can extract, thus starving you to death.
  • In The Bones or Liver - Cancer kills by manufacturing far too much calcium (hypercalcemia), which then pollutes the blood, which leads to heart arrhythmia, kidney failure, and can even cause the total breakdown of the nervous system.

Why Do Doctors Surgically Remove Cancer

Why Do Doctors Amputate Body Parts That Have Cancer

Amputation and/or organ removal may seem to be an extreme manner in which to treat any patient, but when it comes to cancer's ability to metastasis (spread), it is truly a life saving measure. In organs that are not required to sustain overall life—eyes, breasts, testicles, etc.—the localized cancer is not the life threatening concern. What is of concern, however, is the possibility that the cancer will metastasis throughout other vital systems. This is why doctors who specialize in cancer treatment (oncologists) would rather remove these parts before the cancer can spread system wide. Living without a body part presents far less risk than does the spread of cancer to any of the vital life-sustaining systems found within our bodies.

The Stages Of Cancer

What Is Cancer Staging

According to the direct definition of cancer staging provided by the National Cancer Institute (NCI):

"it defines the severity of a person's cancer based on the extent of the original (primary) tumor and whether or not cancer has spread in the body."

The data that follows is derived from the NCI.

Staging (TNM) in Cancer

The TNM System For Determining Stages Of Cancer

What Is The Cancer Staging TNM System

"The TNM system is the most popular staging tool used to determine just how extensive a cancer is or has become. The TNM is based on the extent of the tumor (T), the extent of the spread to the lymph nodes (N), and the presence of distant metastasis (M). Then, a number is added to each letter to indicate the size or extent of the primary tumor and the extent of cancer spread." —NCI—

The information within the tables below is derived from the NCI.


In reference to the term "situ" in the following table:

Situ is the Latin word for site, or in this application, the "location" of a tumor.

Primary Tumor (T) In Stages Of Cancer

(click column header to sort results)
Primary tumor cannot be evaluated
No evidence of primary tumor
Carcinoma in situ (CIS: Abnormal cells are present but have not spread to neighboring tissue; although not cancer, CIS may become cancer and is sometimes called preinvassive cancer)
T1, T2, T3, T4
Size and/or extent of the primary tumor
Information derived from National Cancer Institute (NCI)

Regional Lymph Nodes (N) In Stages Of Cancer

(click column header to sort results)
Regional lymph node cannot be evaluated
No regional lymph node invovlement
N1, N2, N3
Involvement of regional lymph nodes (number of lymph nodes and/or extent of spread)
Information derived from National Cancer Institute (NCI)

Distant Metastasis (M) In Stages Of Cancer

(click column header to sort results)
Distant metastasis cannot be evaluated
No distant metastasis
Distant metastasis is present
Information derived from National Cancer Institute (NCI)

Cancer Stages Defined

(click column header to sort results)
Carcinoma in situ
1, 2, 3
High numbers indicate more extensive disease: Larger tumor size and/or spread of cancer beyond organ in which it first developed to nearby lymph nodes and/or organs adjacent to the location of the primary tumor
Cancer has spread to another organ
Information derived from National Cancer Institute (NCI)

Two Sample Cancer Staging Diagnosis

Examples for understanding the staging tools in the tables above are;

  1. Breast cancer classified as T3 N2 M0 would indicate that the tumor is large and has spread outside of the breast to the nearby lymph nodes, however not to the other parts of the body.
  2. Prostate cancer classified as T2 N0 M0 would indicate that the tumor is located only in the prostate and has not spread to lymph nodes or any other parts of the body.

Examples derived from National Cancer Institute (NCI)

Pink Ribbon Blanket: For those we love who struggle with the pain of cancer.
Pink Ribbon Blanket: For those we love who struggle with the pain of cancer. | Source

Understanding How Cancer Kills Concluded

I am certain that this article could go on for many, many more pages, and probably into infinite numbers before we ever gain a clear and total understanding for cancer. For me, knowing a little more about just how it attacked and ended the life of the person closest to me, returned a tiny amount of clarity to my life. I hope the information you find within the words printed here help you or someone close to you regain some of theirs. Thanks for coming along for the ride.

This article is Copyright protected: ©k9keystrokes 2012

Comments for "How Does Cancer Kill"

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  • Pro-Hubber profile image


    4 years ago from Florida

  • Stephanie Henkel profile image

    Stephanie Henkel 

    6 years ago from USA

    Your explanations of the staging of cancer was the clearest I've seen, and is so useful as I try to understand it better. Sixteen years ago my best friend, my father and my sister-in-law all died of cancer within a few months of each other. The terms used by the health care providers left us confused and helpless. I know that understanding terms won't change things much, but it does help to be able to at least grasp what is going on. I'm so sorry for your loss, but appreciate the research and effort you've put into writing this hub. Voted up!

  • Alecia Murphy profile image

    Alecia Murphy 

    6 years ago from Wilmington, North Carolina

    Excellent and well-researched hub indeed! I believe this information is vital to anyone because as we know, cancer does not discriminate based on demographic factors. But some lifestyle choices do affect your risk.

    I'm glad that research is expanding to help save more lives but 1/3 is still too large of a number to ignore. Voted up, useful and interesting!

  • Mr. Happy profile image

    Mr. Happy 

    6 years ago from Toronto, Canada

    "Cancer begins its rapid attack on the body when malignant cells reproduce" - I do not think this answers the question of why does cancer start to begin with. The reason is missing here and I am of the opinion that this is where most physicians/doctors go astray - they fail to answer the "why" question and then, we end-up with all sorts of unnecessary methods of trying to eliminate it.

    "This is why doctors who specialize in cancer treatment (oncologists) would rather remove these parts before the cancer can spread system wide" - When we don't understand something and perceive it as a threat, we try to remove it. It only works sometimes, or partially. This is not exactly healing, in my opinion and in this way, the reason (or the "why") is not examined/understood. That is why, the cancerous cells may return.

    I spent a lot of time with cancer patients and it took many years to understand that cancer happens due to trauma (mind or body). I cannot go in length here but if the initial trauma is not found and healed, then there are little chances that one who lives with cancer can make it a thing of the past.

    Cutting limbs off, or using chemotherapy for example are things which add even more trauma to the body. When I think of chemotherapy, I cannot stop wondering how people think that killing parts of one's body, classifies as healing ...

    I wish everyone well and the Power to learn to heal themselves.

    All the best!

  • DanaTeresa profile image

    Dana Strang 

    6 years ago from Ohio

    Very informative. Like many I have had loved ones touched by cancer. Most recenlty one of my younger brothers is being treated for skin cancer (a side effect of the rejection meds for his lung transplant!) I have had two scares myself - precancerous cells. My body has since healed itself but I will have to be monitored now for the rest of my life.

    This is going to sound like an odd thing to say, but hubs like this can be very beneficial to those dealing with cancer. Forsome people (me for example) if you can eliminate the mystery and understand what you are facing it makes it easier to deal with.

    Nice job. Voted up etc.

  • Mama Kim 8 profile image

    Sasha Kim 

    6 years ago

    Wonderful hub on a horrible disease. I've recently lost an my aunt to cancer. She "won" her battle against breast cancer but in turn gained cancer in several other places that ultimately killed her. I would love to see a hub from you about the different treatment options. Your hubs are so thorough I just know it would be a fantastic hub.

    Voted up!!

  • healthylife2 profile image

    Healthy Life 

    6 years ago from Connecticut, USA

    Thank you for sharing this hub. Most people are not aware at all how cancer really kills people and many are afraid to really discuss this topic. After going through ovarian cancer and the treatments I've learned more than I ever wanted to know. It is a challenge for the entire family.

  • K9keystrokes profile imageAUTHOR

    India Arnold 

    6 years ago from Northern, California

    Randall~ Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the hub, glad you approve of the content. I will have to check out your hubs.


  • Randall Pruitt profile image

    Randall Pruitt 

    6 years ago from Georgia

    Nice hub. Very good information. I have worked in oncology and seen what devastation cancer causes. I am working on publishing new hubs about healthcare but I am at the mercy of administration. Please follow if able. Thanks.

  • K9keystrokes profile imageAUTHOR

    India Arnold 

    6 years ago from Northern, California

    Gordon!! I am so happy you stopped by! You always have the nicest comments for me.

    So sorry to hear that both your grandfathers succumbed to cancer so young, that is a heavy loss to measure. I hope your healing has been swift.

    I must say your dad sounds like a guy with a very strong resolve, Gordon. My hope is (since you still smoke) that yours is equal to the task. This disease(s) scares me too, my friend. It is no less than a stealthy killer with much on its agenda. One we humans should not tempt to act! ;)

    Thank you for sharing your touching story with me, I am so honored. And thank you for stopping by for a read today. I appreciate your support!

    Super Big HubHugs~

    novascotiamiss~ Thank you for the kind words. I appreciate that you shared your comments on the hub.


  • novascotiamiss profile image


    6 years ago from Nova Scotia, Canada

    Keystrokes. I'm sorry about your loss. Thank you for a very interesting and informative article.

  • Gordon Hamilton profile image

    Gordon Hamilton 

    6 years ago from Wishaw, Lanarkshire, United Kingdom

    Hi, K9

    Wow - stunning Hub and definitely even more thought provoking than your usual wonderful productions.

    Very pertinent for me as my Dad has had cancer twice in the past year and a bit. First one kidney and then the other. He has had superlative care in Germany where he lives and is well on the mend now but it has been difficult with him being in a foreign country and me not being able to just "pop in" and see him.

    This disease scares me very much, as both my grandfathers died in their 50's of lung cancer - probably caused through smoking. I continue to smoke pretty heavily even as I grow nearer that age group - insanity, I know.

    Best wishes and thanks for sharing your pain and your wonderful knowledge,


  • K9keystrokes profile imageAUTHOR

    India Arnold 

    6 years ago from Northern, California

    Kris~ Thanks for your comments.

  • K9keystrokes profile imageAUTHOR

    India Arnold 

    6 years ago from Northern, California

    Docmo~ Thank you for adding your professional medical input regarding the hub, it means the world to me. I have great respect for anything you add, sir. Your remark stating that cancer cells are "mutant" cells rings loud and clear, making perfect sense. What a retched group of diseases cancer is. So honored that you made it by and offer your approval of the content.

    Super Big HubHugs~

    Cara~ I am so sorry to hear that you lost treasured family members to this monster. I pray your healing has been swift, my friend. But, I find myself elated that your mama conquered cancer! She is a darling woman and we are all better for having her with us! Thank you for fitting this hub into your busy life, I am humbled that you did.

    Super Big HubHugs~

  • K9keystrokes profile imageAUTHOR

    India Arnold 

    6 years ago from Northern, California

    Hi Sunshine625~ I could not agree more with your feelings that "cancer sucks." My sister-in-law wore a baseball cap that said "F-Cancer" only with the f spelled out. It left little question about how popular the big C is to our family. I hope the loss you felt shows signs of healing today. Thank you for stopping by, Linda.


    Teresa Coppens~ Thanks for sharing your thoughts here. Sounds as if you know all about the ravages of cancer, but thank God for your good family genetics! I am so happy for you that your mother is still in your life! It makes me smile to hear cancer has been defeated!


    teaches12345~ Wow,...I sure hope your friend has an easy go of it. Chemo can be pretty harsh and just wears on the body. But, with the advancement in oncology today, the odds are far better for a great outcome than before. Your friend will remain n my thoughts. Thanks for your comments.


    Unknown Spy (great handle BTW)~ You are welcome, and thanks for your comments.

    Doc Sonic~ I am so happy for you and your mom that she beat the beast! This thing is so wide spread I am not sure there will ever be a perfect answer to its destructive nature. I certainly hope the pain from losing your grandfather is landing lightly on your heart these days, Doc. This kind of loss can be a real battle to rise up from. Thank you so much for sharing your story, I am honored that you did.


  • profile image


    6 years ago

    Nice Article

  • Docmo profile image

    Mohan Kumar 

    6 years ago from UK

    Sorry to hear about your personal journey. This is a very useful hub that outlines the various cancers and how they affect the body. The classification listing is really useful for people to understand staging. well done. The way Cancer kills is as you have hinted way more complex than simply its impact on the affected organ. while this does have a significant impact on outlook- cancer cells are mutant cells that not only take over the target organ but invade distant tissue and generally starve the person of nutrition ( cachexia), immunity ( reduced bodily defence), energy and function. voted up!

  • cardelean profile image


    6 years ago from Michigan

    This is a great article for anyone who is or has a family member battling this horrible disease. Like so many others, cancer has directly touched my life. We lost my grandmother and my (step) father to cancer and my mother in law is a cancer survivor. Thank you for this well researched hub. I'm sure it will help many people in their journey.

  • Doc Sonic profile image

    Glen Nunes 

    6 years ago from Cape Cod, Massachusetts

    K9, it must have been hard to share your story. Cancer seems to affect everyone in some way, and it absolutely helps to know what you are dealing with, so thank you for doing this. I lost my grandfather to cancer, and my mother is a survivor of colon cancer.

    It's hard to believe with all the time and money spent on research that they haven't wiped it out yet. I guess that shows how much of a monster this killer really is.

  • unknown spy profile image

    Not Found 

    6 years ago from Neverland - where children never grow up.

    Thank you for this very informative and detailed hub. all my votes.

  • teaches12345 profile image

    Dianna Mendez 

    6 years ago

    This is information useful and helpful in understanding cancer. I could really understand it as you made it very detailed. I have a friend who was just diagnosed with cancer and is beginning chemo treatments. Your quiz was good and your content well researched. Voted up.

  • Teresa Coppens profile image

    Teresa Coppens 

    6 years ago from Ontario, Canada

    Excellent hub K9, I'm sorry it comes from such a personal story. My mother had colon cancer in her 50's and just recently skin cancer in her 80's. Both have taken a lot out of her but I suppose she is one of the lucky one's as she is still here with us. Her mother was also a survivor of breast cancer in the 1940's so I suppose genetics may have something to do with her survival. Thanks for sharing this story and information K9. It took a lot of courage but is so important for those dealing with this killer disease!

  • Sunshine625 profile image

    Linda Bilyeu 

    6 years ago from Orlando, FL

    Very informative hub. You've obviously done your research. You've unfortunately also been there and done it like so many of us have. I have two words for cancer..."you suck"

    Your article is UP and awesome! Thanks for sharing.


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