This month's primetime medical feature takes a look at the basics of cancer.
Jamaica Magazine

The Basics: Cancer

As of the latest statistics, cancer accounted for 15% of noncommunicable diseases. Breast and cervical cancers are the most common cancers in women. Prostate cancer is the number one form of cancer found in men.

What is Cancer?

The word “cancer” refers to a group of over 100 diseases. Cancer occurs when normal cells become abnormal, and begin to grow out of control.
Cancer usually forms a tumour. There are two types of tumours:

  • Benign tumours: non-cancerous and they do not spread to other parts of the body. They can often be removed and pose little threat to one’s life.
  • Malignant tumours: cancerous and are able to spread beyond the original site.

Who Gets Cancer?

Anyone can get cancer at any age. However, the risk of cancer increases with age (cancer occur most often in older people).

What are the types of Cancers?

Carcinomas: most cancers are classed as carcinomas. They start in lining of organs and of the skin.

Sarcomas: occur in the muscles, bones and fatty tissues.

Leukaemias/Lymphomas: occur in the tissues where white blood cells are formed, such as the bone marrow and lymphatic system.

Other forms of cancer: such as Brain tumours and other rare forms.

What Causes Cancer?

Some types of cancers are caused by certain behviours we can change.

  • Smoking is known to cause lung cancer
  • Drinking lots of alcohol increases a person change of getting mouth and throat cancer
  • Radiation may cause cancer (x-rays use by doctors are safe)
  • Too much exposure to sunlight without adequate protection can cause skin cancer
  • Diet
  • Being infected with certain viruses, example the Human Papillomavirus (HPV)

What are risk factors of cancer?

Risk factors for cancer can include :

  • Age
  • Sex
  • Family history of cancer
  • Environment
  • Tobacco and alcohol use
  • Poor diet
  • Exposure to sun

Can cancer be prevented?

Absolutely. The risk of cancer can be reduced by not using tobacco products; by eating foods with less fat and eating more vegetables, fruits, and whole grains; by exercising regularly; and by avoiding overexposure to the sun. In addition, by being screened regularly, pre-cancerous conditions can be detected and treated before becoming cancerous.

What are the signs or symptoms of cancer?

Cancer has many signs and symptoms. Common signs and symptoms include :

  • Lump
  • Change in wart or mole
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Pain
  • Sores that do not heal
  • Indigestion or difficulty swallowing
  • Nagging cough or hoarseness
  • When one or more of these symptoms occur, they may not be cancer. They could be as a result of other conditions or infections.

How is cancer diagnosed?

If your doctor thinks the symptoms you have are due to cancer, he/she will recommend several tests be done.

  • X-ray – radiation used to “see through the body.” It gives an image of the internal structure of bones and organs
  • CAT (CT) Scan — a kind of x-ray that gives a more detailed picture of how big a tumor is and where it is
  • MRI — uses magnetism to give a detailed picture of the inside of the body
  • Blood and urine tests
  • Biopsy – a sample of the lump or abnormal area is removed to be examined under the microscope

How is Cancer Treated?

There are four major types of treatments:

  • Surgery: operation to remove the cancer
  • Radiation therapy: using of high energy x-rays to kill the cancer cells
  • Chemotherapy: use of drugs to kill cancer cells
  • Hormonal therapy: used to control the activity of hormones. Certain cancers depend on hormones to grow and multiply.

About the author

Deidre Patterson, MPH