Cancer (medical term: malignant neoplasm) is a class of diseases in which a group of cells display uncontrolled growth (division beyond the normal limits), invasion (intrusion on and destruction of adjacent tissues), and sometimes metastasis (spread to other locations in the body via lymph or blood). These three malignantbenign tumors, which are self-limited, do not invade or metastasize. Most cancers form a tumor but some, like leukemia, do not. The branch of medicine concerned with the study, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of cancer is oncology. properties of cancers differentiate them from
Cancer may affect people at all ages, even fetuses, but the risk for most varieties increases with age. Cancer causes about 13% of all deaths. According to the American Cancer Society, 7.6 million people died from cancer in the world during 2007. Cancers can affect all animals.
Nearly all cancers are caused by abnormalities in the genetic material of the transformed cells. These abnormalities may be due to the effects of carcinogens, such as tobacco smoke, radiation, chemicals, or infectious agents. Other cancer-promoting genetic abnormalities may be randomly acquired through errors in DNA replication, or are inherited, and thus present in all cells from birth. The heritability of cancers are usually affected by complex interactions between carcinogens and the host's genome. New aspects of the genetics of cancer pathogenesis, such as DNA methylation, and microRNAs are increasingly recognized as important.
Genetic abnormalities found in cancer typically affect two general classes of genes. Cancer-promoting oncogenes are typically activated in cancer cells, giving those cells new properties, such as hyperactive growth and division, protection against programmed cell death, loss of respect for normal tissue boundaries, and the ability to become established in diverse tissue environments. Tumor suppressor genes are then inactivated in cancer cells, resulting in the loss of normal functions in those cells, such as accurate DNA replication, control over the cell cycle, orientation and adhesion within tissues, and interaction with protective cells of the immune system.
Diagnosis usually requires the histologic examination of a tissue biopsy specimen by a pathologist, although the initial indication of malignancy can be symptoms or radiographic imaging abnormalities. Most cancers can be treated and some cured, depending on the specific type, location, and stage. Once diagnosed, cancer is usually treated with a combination of surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. As research develops, treatments are becoming more specific for different varieties of cancer. There has been significant progress in the development of targeted therapy drugs that act specifically on detectable molecular abnormalities in certain tumors, and which minimize damage to normal cells. The prognosis of cancer patients is most influenced by the type of cancer, as well as the stage, or extent of the disease. In addition, histologic grading and the presence of specific molecular markers can also be useful in establishing prognosis, as well as in determining individual treatments.
Cancer is generally classified according to the tissue from which the cancerous cells originate, the primary tumor, as well as the normal cell type they most resemble. These are location and histology, respectively.
The following closely related terms may be used to designate abnormal growths:
* Tumor: originally, it meant any abnormal swelling, lump or mass. In current English, however, the word tumor has become synonymous with neoplasm, specifically solid neoplasm. Note that some neoplasms, such as leukemia, do not form tumors.
* Neoplasm: the scientific term to describe an abnormal proliferation of genetically altered cells. Neoplasms can be benign or malignant:
o Malignant neoplasm or malignant tumor: synonymous with cancer.
o Benign neoplasm or benign tumor: a tumor (solid neoplasm) that stops growing by itself, does not invade other tissues and does not form metastases.
* Invasive tumor is another synonym of cancer. The name refers to invasion of surrounding tissues.
* Pre-malignancy, pre-cancer or non-invasive tumor: A neoplasm that is not invasive but has the potential to progress to cancer (become invasive) if left untreated. These lesions are, in order of increasing potential for cancer, atypia, dysplasia and carcinoma in situ.
The following terms can be used to describe a cancer:
* Screening: a test done on healthy people to detect tumors before they become apparent. A mammogram is a screening test.
* Diagnosis: the confirmation of the cancerous nature of a lump. This usually requires a biopsy or removal of the tumor by surgery, followed by examination by a pathologist.
* Surgical excision: the removal of a tumor by a surgeon.
o Surgical margins: the evaluation by a pathologist of the edges of the tissue removed by the surgeon to determine if the tumor was removed completely ("negative margins") or if tumor was left behind ("positive margins").
* Grade: a number (usually on a scale of 3) established by a pathologist to describe the degree of resemblance of the tumor to the surrounding benign tissue.
* Stage: a number (usually on a scale of 4) established by the oncologist to describe the degree of invasion of the body by the tumor.
* Recurrence: new tumors that appear at the site of the original tumor after surgery.
* Metastasis: new tumors that appear far from the original tumor.
* Transformation: the concept that a low-grade tumor transforms to a high-grade tumor over time. Example: Richter's transformation.
* Chemotherapy: treatment with drugs.
* Radiation therapy: treatment with radiations.
* Adjuvant therapy: treatment, either chemotherapy or radiation therapy, given after surgery to kill the remaining cancer cells.
* Prognosis: the probability of cure after the therapy. It is usually expressed as a probability of survival five years after diagnosis. Alternatively, it can be expressed as the number of years when 50% of the patients are still alive. Both numbers are derived from statistics accumulated with hundreds of similar patients to give a Kaplan-Meier curve.
Cancers are classified by the type of cell that resembles the tumor and, therefore, the tissue presumed to be the origin of the tumor. Examples of general categories include:
* Carcinoma: Malignant tumors derived from epithelial cells. This group represents the most common cancers, including the common forms of breast, prostate, lung and colon cancer.
* Sarcoma: Malignant tumors derived from connective tissue, or mesenchymal cells.
* Lymphoma and leukemia: Malignancies derived from hematopoietic (blood-forming) cells
* Germ cell tumor: Tumors derived from totipotent cells. In adults most often found in the testicle and ovary; in fetuses, babies, and young children most often found on the body midline, particularly at the tip of the tailbone; in horses most often found at the poll (base of the skull).
* Blastic tumor: A tumor (usually malignant) which resembles an immature or embryonic tissue. Many of these tumors are most common in children.
Malignant tumors (cancers) are usually named using -carcinoma, -sarcoma or -blastoma as a suffix, with the Latin or Greek word for the organ of origin as the root. For instance, a cancer of the liver is called hepatocarcinoma; a cancer of the fat cells is called liposarcoma. For common cancers, the English organ name is used. For instance, the most common type of breast cancer is called ductal carcinoma of the breast or mammary ductal carcinoma. Here, the adjective ductal refers to the appearance of the cancer under the microscope, resembling normal breast ducts.
Benign tumors (which are not cancers) are named using -oma as a suffix with the organ name as the root. For instance, a benign tumor of the smooth muscle of the uterus is called leiomyoma (the common name of this frequent tumor is fibroid). Unfortunately, some cancers also use the -oma suffix, examples being melanoma and seminoma.
A cancer may be suspected for a variety of reasons, but the definitive diagnosis of most malignancies must be confirmed by histological examination of the cancerous cells by a pathologist. Tissue can be obtained from a biopsy or surgery. Many biopsies (such as those of the skin, breast or liver) can be done in a doctor's office. Biopsies of other organs are performed under anesthesia and require surgery in an operating room.
The tissue diagnosis given by the pathologist indicates the type of cell that is proliferating, its histological grade and other features of the tumor. Together, this information is useful to evaluate the prognosis of this patient and to choose the best treatment. Cytogenetics and immunohistochemistry are other types of testing that the pathologist may perform on the tissue specimen. These tests may provide information about future behavior of the cancer (prognosis) and best treatment.