What is Cancer

Cancer is a type of disease or disorder related to malignant tumors (that is: body cells gone haywire and forming growths which are harmful for the body itself). When a person has cancer, their body has no control over cells which begin to split apart. In a person without cancer, healthy cells split apart all the time and copy themselves to create new healthy cells. In a person with cancer, this normal process of cells splitting and re-creating themselves actually helps spread cancer. Cancerous cells (cells that have cancer in them) split themselves, copy themselves, and make new cells that are copies of themselves – meaning that the new cells that were created are also cancerous.

These cells are able to go into other tissues by growing into them. They can also get into other tissues by putting themselves into faraway places in the body by metastasis. Metastasis is a process in which cancer cells move through the bloodstream or lymphatic system. When this happens, a person’s cancer can be spread throughout his body (this is called “metastasizing” – the cancer has spread through metastasis).

Cancer can affect anybody at any age. Most types of cancer are more likely to affect people as they get older. This is because as a person’s DNA gets older, their DNA may become damaged, or damage that happened in the past may get worse. One type of cancer that is more common in young men, rather than older people, is testicular cancer (cancer of thetesticles).

Cancer is one of the biggest and most researched causes of death in developed countries.


Cancer is a leading cause of death (one of the most common causes of death) around the world. It causes about 12.5% (or 12.5 out of every 100) of all deaths worldwide, according to the World.

Different types of cancer have different causes. Some things are known to cause cancer in a specific body part; other things are known to be able to cause many different types of cancer. For example, using tobacco (smoked or smokeless) can cause many types of cancers, such as lung, mouth, tongue, and throat cancers.[1] Other things that are known to be able to cause cancer – or make a person more likely to get cancer – include: radiation (including sunlight and X-rays in large or many doses, and exposure to radiation in a nuclear power plant); chemicals and materials used in building and manufacturing (for example, asbestos and benzene); high-fat or low-fiber diets; air and water pollution; eating very little fruits and vegetables; obesity; not enough physical activity; drinking too much alcohol; and certain chemicals commonly used at home. Some cancers can also be caused by viruses. Many people who are exposed to these things do not get cancer – but some do.


There are many different kinds of cancers. Some of the most common are breast cancer, brain cancer, leukemia (a blood cancer), testicular cancer, mesothelioma, and lung cancer. Breast cancer begins in the breast. It can be found in anybody at anytime, even in men. Brain cancer starts in the brain with a brain tumor). (A tumor is a clump of cancer cells which is formed by cancer cells splitting and copying each other to form more cancer cells, which clump together into a tumor. The tumor grows if the cancer cells in the tumor continue to copy themselves and add more cancer cells onto the tumor.) Testicular cancer starts in the testicles, and is most common in young men. Mesothelioma and lung cancer start in the lungs. Mesothelioma is usually caused by exposure to asbestos.

Treatment of cancer

There is no sure cure for cancer. It can only be cured if all of the cancerous cells are cut out or killed in place. This means that the earlier the cancer is treated, the better the chances are for a cure (because the cancer cells may not have had enough time to copy themselves and spread so much that the person cannot be cured). There are a few different types of treatments that are used to try to kill cancer cells.

These treatments are radiotherapy or radiation therapy (which uses radiation to kill cancer cells); chemotherapy (which uses strong medications to kill cancer cells); and immunotherapy (also called biological therapy). In some cases, at least a part of the tumor can be taken out through surgery. But this is not the end of treatment. After surgery, patients may need radiotherapy or chemotherapy to keep the tumor from growing again.

One big problem in treating cancer is that most things that kill cancer cells also kill normal, healthy cells. (This is why people who are getting chemotherapy often lose their hair and throw up a lot – their chemotherapy kills the cells in the hair, causing the hair to fall out, and the chemotherapy also kills cells in the lining of the stomach, causing nausea (feeling like throwing up) and vomiting (throwing up).

Another problem is that the body’s immune system (which is supposed to protect the body by attacking threats and intruders) usually will not attack cancer cells, even though they could easily kill the body. This is because the cancer has actually become a part of the body by invading cells and tissues. So the immune system sees the cancer as part of the body it is trying to protect, not as a threat to be attacked.

A third major problem is that there are many different types of cancer, and each type has its own symptoms and causes. Even with the same type of cancer, different people may have different symptoms, and may react to treatments differently; their cancer also may grow or spread at different speeds. Treatment has to be a good fit to both the type of cancer and the individual person who has the cancer.

Many, many people in many countries study cancer and work on finding treatments. There has been some good progress in finding treatments, and many cancers are treated with success. Along with looking for different medical treatments to treat cancer, some studies also look for things that people with cancer can do themselves to try to make themselves healthier. For example, one study showed that if a person with lymph edema (a swelling of the arm linked to breast cancer) lifts weights, he may be able to fight his cancer better than somebody who does not lift weights.


Cancer has existed for many thousands of years. Today, many of the medical terms used to describe cancer come from ancient Greek and Latin. For example, the Latinized Greek word carcinoma is used to describe a malignant tumor – a tumor made up of cancer cells. The Greeks also used the word “Karakinos”, which would be translated by Aulus Cornelius Celsius into the Latin word cancer. (The prefix (or beginning of a word) ‘carcino’ is still used in medicine, in words like carcinoma or carcinogenic, which means cancer-causing.) A famous Greek doctor, Galen, helped.

Because the ancient Greeks did not believe in opening up dead bodies to study them, Hippocrates was only able to describe and make drawings of tumors he saw from the outside of the body. He drew tumors that had been on the skin, nose, and breasts. Hippocrates and other doctors at that time treated people based on the humor theory. This theory said that there were four types of fluid in the body (black, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm). Doctors tried to figure out whether the patient’s four “humors” (or body fluids) were in balance.

They would then use treatments like blood-letting (cutting the patient and letting him bleed so that he would lose blood); laxatives (giving the patient foods or herbs to make him go to the bathroom), and/or changing the patient’s diet. The doctors thought that these treatments would work to get the patient’s four humors back into the right balance. The humor theory treatment was popular until the 19th century (the 1800s), when cells were discovered. By this time, people had realized that cancer can happen anywhere in the body.

The oldest known document that talks about cancer was discovered in Egypt and is thought to be from about 1600 B.C. The document talks about using surgery to treat eight cases of ulcers of the breast. These were treated by cauterization – by burning them – using a tool called “the fire drill”. The document also says about cancer, “There is no treatment”.[4]

Another very early type of surgery used to treat cancer was written about in the 1020s. In The Canon of Medicine, Avicenna (Ibn Sina) said that treatment should involve a radical excision (or removal through surgery) of all diseased tissue. This included the use of amputation (removing a part of the body completely) or removing veins that ran in the direction of the tumor. Avicenna also suggested that the area that had been treated should be cauterized (or burned) if needed.[5]

In the 16th and 17th centuries (the 1500s and 1600s), doctors started to be allowed to dissect bodies (or cut them open after death) in order to figure out the cause of death. Around this time, there were many different ideas about what caused cancer. The German professor Wilhelm Fabry believed that breast cancer was caused by a clot of milk in the part of a woman’s breast that produces milk.

The Dutch professor Francois de la Boe Sylvius believed that all disease was caused by chemical processes. He thought that cancer, in particular, was caused by acidic lymph. Nicolaes Tulp, who lived at the same time as Sylvius, believed that cancer was a poison that slowly spreads and was contagious.[6]

A British surgeon named Percivall Pott was the first person to figure out one of the real causes of cancer. In 1775, he discovered that cancer of the scrotum was a common disease among chimney (people who cleaned out chimneys). Other doctors started studying this topic and coming up with other ideas about what causes cancer. Doctors then started working together and coming up with better ideas.

In the 18th century (the 1700s), the microscope started to be used by many people, and this made a big difference in helping doctors and scientists understand more about cancer. Using the microscope, scientists were able to see that the ‘cancer poison’ spread from one tumor through the lymph nodes to other sites (“metastasis”). This was first made clear by the English surgeon Campbell De Morgan, between 1871 and 1874.[7]

Before the 19th century (the 1800s), using surgery to treat cancer usually had bad results. Doctors did not understand how important hygiene (or keeping things clean) is for preventing disease, especially after surgery. Because things were not kept clean during or after surgery, patients often got infections and died. For example, one well-known Scottish surgeon, Alexander Monro, kept records and found that 58 patients out of every 60 who had surgery for breast tumors died within the next two years.

In the 19th century, surgical hygiene got better because of asepsis (doctors realized that dirtiness and germs cause infection, and they started to keep things cleaner and do things to kill germs in order to prevent their patients from getting infections). As it became more common for people to survive after having surgery, surgical removal of the tumor (taking the tumor out of the body by doing surgery) became the first-choice treatment for cancer.

For this kind of treatment to work, the surgeon doing the operation had to be very good at removing tumors. (This meant that even if people had the same kind of cancer, they could get very different results, with some getting good treatment that worked and others getting treatment that did not work, because of differences in how good different surgeons were.)

In the late 1800s, doctors and scientists started to realize that the body is made up of many kinds of tissues, which in turn are made up of millions of cells. This discovery made it clear once and for all that the old theories about body humors causing diseases were not correct. The discovery also started the age of cellular pathology (studying cells to learn about diseases and figure out what is wrong with the body).

Also in the late 1800s, a husband-and-wife team of scientists, Marie Curie and Pierre Curie, discovered radiation. By discovering radiation, the Curies had found the first effective non-surgical cancer treatment (the first treatment that worked, and did not involve surgery). Radiation also began the first signs of multi-disciplinary approaches to cancer treatment (meaning that people doing different jobs were working together to treat patients). The surgeon was no longer working by himself – he worked together with hospital radiologists (people who gave and readX-rays) to help patients.

This team approach meant that some major changes had to be made. The different people on the team had to communicate with each other and work together, which they were not used to doing. It also meant that treatment had to be done in a hospital rather than at the patient’s home. Because of this, patients’ information had to be put together into files kept at the hospital (called “medical records”). Because this information was now being kept and written down, scientists were able to do the first statistical patient studies (which use numbers to describe different things, like how many people who have a certain type of cancer or get a certain treatment survive).

Another important step forward in understanding cancer happened in 1926, when Janet Lane-Clayton published a paper on cancer epidemiology. (Epidemiology is a field of study which looks at how common a disease is, what patterns the disease takes in different kinds of people, and what this means for understanding and treating the disease.) This historic paper was acomparative study, which tries to find out what causes a disease by looking at a group of people who have the disease and figuring out how they are different from another group that does not have the disease.

Lane-Clayton’s study looked at 1000 people who all had the same background and lifestyle (or way of living): 500 people with breast cancer and 500 control patients (people without breast cancer). These people were the same in many ways, but some got breast cancer and some did not. To figure out what might be causing certain people to get breast cancer, the study looked at what was different about these people when they were compared to (or looked at alongside) the people who did not get cancer.

This way of studying cancer is very important to cancer epidemiology today, and it has also been very important in shaping what we now know about cancer and what the rules and laws about the disease and public health are today. Over the past 50 years, many different people have done a lot of work to collect data from different doctors, hospitals, areas, states, and even countries. This data is used to study whether different kinds of cancer are more or less common in different areas, environments (for example, in big cities compared to the countryside), or cultures. This helps people who study cancer to figure out what makes people more or less likely to get different kinds of cancer.