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The Five Major Types of Cancer

Updated on July 19, 2018
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Carolee is a passionate writer with a love for learning and teaching. She is a published author, poet, blogger, and content creator.

Abnormal cell growth
Abnormal cell growth

What is Cancer?

This is one of the most dreaded words anyone could hear. People shy away from getting initial examinations which could potentially save their lives because they dread hearing the word 'cancer'. Lets us first define cancer and then we will explore it.

There are actually more than one hundred types of growth known as cancer. We often refer to any type of cell growth whether harmful or not as cancer. This is quite misleading as cancer refers to that type of cell growth with these two characteristics:-

  1. Uncontrolled cell growth
  2. Ability to spread through the blood, lymph and other parts of the body

Each type of cancer is different and has its own markers. For the person living with cancer, it is recommended that they learn which cancer they have because each cancer has its own treatment and is treated differently. Some cancers spread rapidly while others are slow spreading. While some cancers are curable and there are those that cannot be cured even with modern medicine.

Here are some terms used to describe cell growth and should be used in the right context to avoid confusion.

  • Tumor- any abnormal swelling that may be due to an infection, inflammation or cancer. A tumor is not necessarily a cancer but all cancers are tumors. If you know that you have cancer you may refer to it as tumor(s), but if you have a swelling or enlargement that has not been diagnosed you must never refer to it as cancer because it could very well be a simple inflammation.
  • Malignant- this the dangerous type of growth that needs to be treated or operated on. This is cancer. All malignant growths are cancer and all cancers are malignant.
  • Benign- the opposite of malignant. This is the type of growth or tumor that your doctor will tell you is not cancerous at all. This growth will not spread or cause any damage unless it grows near a vital organ. A benign tumor is not cancer nor is cancer benign.
  • Neoplasm- any overgrowth of cells which can be malignant or benign. So some neoplasms are cancer while some are not. Your overgrowth needs to be diagnosed before making a determination as to whether or not they are cancer.
  • Lesion- an abnormal area such as ulcers and bruises. These lesions can be either malignant or benign. A diagnosis needs to be made to determine their condition.

The Five Basic Types of Cancer

Each type of cancer is dependent on where the cancer started. The Pathologist will do a test to tell where each cancer originated by looking under a microscope. Each cancer cell will have the characteristics of the organ where it started. For example cancer which started in the lungs will have lung cells.

Here is how the five basic cancer cells are defined:-

  • Carcinoma - the cancer that starts in the lining of an organ or the covering tissues.
  • Sarcoma - start in the muscles, blood vessels, nerves and tendons (soft tissues)
  • Lymphoma - this cancer growth originates in the lymph system such as the lymph nodes and lymphatic vessels.
  • Leukemia - this type of cancer starts in the white blood cells
  • Multiple myeloma - this cancer starts in the bone marrow in the plasma cells.

When diagnosed with cancer of the skin, lung or breast, the diagnosing physician(s) will run test or biopsies to determine the type of cancer and where it originated. This will help them to determine treatment and determine prognosis.

Source of Reference: Diagnosis Cancer by Dr. Wendy Schlessel Harpham.


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