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Breast Cancer: The Signs, Symptoms & Stages

January 17, 2023

Cancer can have a detrimental impact on those who suffer from it, and their families. Understanding more about what is cancer and what causes it can help to calm some nerves when dealing with the disease.

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Understanding cancer can be an overwhelming and unnerving experience, especially if you or a loved one is affected. However, learning about cancer can help you stay prepared and familiar with what to expect. You may be wondering what cancer is, how it can develop and other important information. Cancer is a common condition affecting millions of people in the United States each year, and many different types and risk factors exist.

Continue reading to learn what is cancer, what causes it and more.

What is cancer?

Cancer is a disease in which cells divide uncontrollably. It can happen almost anywhere in the body, including the lungs, prostate, breast and colon. Cancer cells can invade nearby tissues and spread to other parts of the body through the blood or lymphatic systems, leading to a range of different symptoms and complications. Cancer is not contagious or spread from one person to another.

How many people get cancer every year?

According to the American Cancer Society, cancer is the second most common cause of death, after heart disease, in the United States. For 2022, the estimated number of new diagnoses of cancer is 1.9 million. In addition, over half a million deaths are expected to result from cancer. The three most common types of cancer—lung, prostate and colorectal (cancer of the colon or rectum)—contributed to 41.9% of all cancers worldwide in 2020, excluding forms that affect only skin.

How cancer starts

Cancer starts when the body’s process of regulating the cell life cycle becomes disrupted, causing cells to grow out of control. Normal cells grow, divide and die in an organized way that maintains the body's functions. Cells that grow faster than normal can form a mass of tissue called a tumor.

At a microscopic level, cancer is caused by genetic changes or damage to the DNA in cells. The body normally gets rid of these abnormal cells before they grow and become cancerous. However, getting rid of these cells can become less efficient as we age. Cancer cells can grow and spread to other parts of the body through a process known as metastasis.

Cancers can be found in any part of the body, including the blood cells of the bone marrow and lymph nodes, the reproductive organs (uterus, ovaries and testes), the skin, and the lining of the digestive tract.

What causes cancer?

Scientists do not fully understand what causes cancer. However, there are a number of factors that may increase your risk of developing this disease. These include:

  • Age: The older you get, the greater your chance of developing cancer. Most cancers occur in people over age 65.
  • Genetics: Some people are more likely to develop cancer because of inherited genes that make them susceptible to certain types of cancer.
  • Environment: Certain chemicals in the environment and lifestyle choices, such as tobacco smoke, may increase your risk of developing cancer.
  • Diet: Some foods, such as processed meats, may be linked to certain types of cancer. In addition, foods may contain specific ingredients that increase the risk of cancer.
  • Exposure to radiation and certain chemicals: People who work in industries that regularly use radioactive materials or handle toxic chemicals may be at an increased risk of developing certain cancers.

How many kinds of cancer are there?

In order to understand cancer, it’s important to know the different types. Cancers are grouped by the type of cell that is affected. There are four main types of cancer:

  • Sarcomas: Cancers that develop in connective tissue, such as tendons, ligaments and cartilage.
  • Carcinomas: Cancers that develop in the skin or internal organs.
  • Leukemias: Cancers that develop in the blood-producing cells of the bone marrow.
  • Lymphomas: Cancers that develop in lymph nodes, which are small bean-shaped organs that filter fluid from our bodies.

Who can get cancer?

Cancer can affect people of all ages, but it's more common in older people. In fact, the average age at diagnosis is around 65 years old. Cancer is also more common in men than women, especially certain types like bladder cancer. Some factors that make someone more likely to get cancer include being overweight or obese (having a high body mass index), smoking cigarettes or using tobacco products, such as chewing tobacco or snuff—all of which may alter cellular processes in the body. People with a family history of cancer may also have an increased risk of cancer.

Cancer can be complicated, but it's treatable

Cancer can be treated through several different options, including radiation, surgery, and chemotherapy. As cancer treatments can cause a range of side effects, the goal of treatment will depend on the cancer stage or how much cancer has spread throughout the body. In most cases, the goal is to reduce or remove the tumor and prevent its spread to other parts of the body. However, for late-stage cancers, the goal of treatment may be to relieve symptoms and maximize a person’s quality of life.

Fortunately, cancer can be cured. Remission occurs when there is a decrease in signs and symptoms of cancer. However, because cancer can come back, it’s important to have regular check-ups.

Catching cancer early is the key to successful treatment. Healthcare providers may recommend screening for certain types of cancers as you reach a certain age. Consult a healthcare provider if you have concerns about risk factors for cancer.

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Learning about cancer, including the basics like what is cancer, can be uncomfortable for many people, but understanding the types and risk factors of cancer can be helpful for avoiding surprises. As some risk factors can be controlled, it’s important to take action to improve your health and reduce your overall risk. Still, there are different options to help treat and even cure cancer.

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