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Cancer Basics

- 17 February 2009, 01:02

Article and Video about Cancer Basics

What is a ‘cancer cell’?

Cancer is a complex topic, but it is not something that’s foreign to the average person. You make cancer cells every day. We all make cancer cells. I’m making cancer cells right now. The difference is that in a normal situation those cancer cells are identified and destroyed. So cancer cells are normal cells, you know, in every sense of the word. They’re normal. The only difference is they have somehow found a way to live longer than what they should live. Every cell has a programmed time period in which it should die. Every cell does. The cancer cells have somehow found a way not to die. And that is essentially what a cancer cell is.

What causes cancer?

The truth is we don’t know exactly what causes cancer on every single level, what we really know more about is what creates an environment that improves or enhances a cancer’s chance of developing, so to speak. At the end of the road, when you say well, what causes cancer, it’s twofold: 1, your immune system, which is essentially the police of your body, which are supposed to find any aberrant cells and destroy them, for some reason were either sleeping on the job, or taking some sort of extended lunch break, or is just not functioning properly. And there are a multitude of reasons why that may occur. Poor nutrition, sometimes people have other illnesses, medications that they’re taking, but in some way shape or form the immune system is not on par. And that’s one factor. The other factor is this cancer cell had to have developed some properties or abilities to evade the immune system, meaning if you were trying to hide from someone it would be great if you could become invisible. Well cancer cells have actually developed the ability to become invisible to the immune system. It would be great if you could hide inside of things that no one would look in, like you would hide in a closet. Well cancer cells actually hide within tissue, they masquerade as other things. So it’s a combination of the cells developing these superpowers, so to speak, that allow them to disguise themselves, hide themselves, move into areas that the body isn’t looking, in concert with the immune system maybe not looking quite as hard or even if it does find it, decide this is not something I feel like tackling today, I’m going to let you slide today. And that kind of balances how a cancer actually grabs hold and is allowed to develop. On a molecular level it’s a little more complex than that. It’s true that on a cellular level, there’s usually some sort of damage done to important DNA which is involved in the immune system’s ability to identify and destroy these cells, but that’s a very complex answer and in reality, we’re not at a point where it has any effect on treatment or prognosis. This is where bench research is occurring, but it really does not have any valid role in the way that we’re treating patients right now, today.

Can cancer be ‘cured’?

The definition of cure is no detectable disease by any method. Chronicle, radiographic, or pathologic meaning or even by biopsy there is no evidence that you have any abnormal cells in your body pertaining to the term of origin. So if you have breast cancer, you were treated and we were to go back and we have biopsy and there will be no evidence that there is any breast cancer still present. The problem is you have to figure out how you will differentiate cure from remission because essentially at certain points through their exact same appearance in both settings you have no visible tumor. The difference is over a period of time there is no signs of occurrence then you will be termed cured and for each cancer that is different. For some cancer it is five years, some is fifteen years, some is twenty years so you, depending upon what kind of tumor you are talking about and how long you have been without detectable disease the term is whether you are in a remission or you are cured.

What is a ‘tumor’?

The way cancer cells create a tumor, a tumor by definition, it’s a growth. It’s mass. They have formed certain properties that allow them to double in size, to duplicate themselves, to stick to each other, because obviously, if they couldn’t stick to each other, they would just be free floating cells, but they’ve developed these techniques to hold on, to attach, not only to themselves unfortunately. They could attach to tissue, bone, muscle, blood vessels. And this is what you begin to identify as they continued to multiply in the same place holding fast and almost trying to occupy territory to take over a region. This is when you recognize you have a lump. There is a bump there, something that wasn’t there before. This is what we call a tumor.

What’s the difference between ‘advanced cancer’ and ‘metastatic cancer’?

The difference between advanced cancer and metastatic cancer is really semantics. When we talk about “advanced,” we’re almost are always meaning that the tumor has metastasized. And the definition of a metastasis is the tumor has moved from its site of origin to another part of the body. These are almost synonymous. “Metastasis.” “Advanced.” Not very different in nature.

What is ‘remission’?

Remission is a state in which whatever disease entity a patient had has regressed from its visible, clinically detectable form. Meaning if you had a tumor in your breast, we can identify it by doing a cats can. If that tumor were to disappear, meaning it could not be detected by cats can, you would be considered to be in remission, because there is nothing that we can identify. That’s different than cured. It merely means we cannot see any evidence, with the tools that we have available, that you have a cancer in your body.

What is ‘apoptosis’?

I think apoptosis comes up as a question and a concern and maybe more of a question with patients doing a little searching on the internet about cancer as a diagnosis, and a lot of the experimental treatments that currently are being investigated in terms of looking at things to prevent apoptosis or induce apoptosis and that’s the best way to describe that, is to describe what the term, “apoptosis,” means, and it means “programmed cell death.” What normally happens in your body is that as cells grow and reach a certain age, they automatically program themselves to die and get regenerated to another cell. When you have a block in apoptosis, or a block in programmed cell death, you end up with unrestricted growth, and ultimately, unrestricted growth is what leads to cancer, depending on the particular type. But unrestricted growth leads to tumor production, tumor growth, cells that shouldn’t be there when they should be gone. There are lots of different experimental therapies looking at enhancing or re-initiating apoptosis when that function is no longer present.

What is ‘angiogenesis’?

Angiogenesis is, by definition, the birth or the growth of blood vessels. That is important, and it tends to be important in certain types of malignancy. Colon cancer is one that is very important in terms of angiogenesis. Certain types of brain tumours have significant blood vessel density. Kidney cancer, Renal Cell Carcinoma, as well has a very high potential of blood vessel density, as well as liver tumours. The type of tumours in the liver that come about when people are diagnosed with hepatocellular carcinoma, hepatitis C, long time patients with cirrhosis that eventually lead to cancer. All those types of cancer: kidney, liver, colon, brain, and a multitude of others rely on angiogenesis; rely on tumor cell growth, tumor growth based on blood vessel density. In order for a tumor to grow, it needs a blood supply. So the blood supply is maintained by making new blood vessels. If you can’t make new blood vessels, then you can’t make new tumors, and tumors can’t grow.

What is ‘signal transduction’?

It’s important when you talk about signal transduction to understand what that means, and I think the best way to describe that is on a cellular level. In the nucleus, the DNA which resides in the nucleus of a cell, there are certain signals that cause messaging and signaling and lead to cell growth or cell destruction, apoptosis or cell death, growth, metastasis, migration. For all cellular functions, whether it is a cancer cell, a non-cancerous cell, or a normal cellular body, signal transduction or signaling of any particular type occurs on an every second, every microsecond type of timing. Why is that important to cancer? Certain signals are misinterpreted when it comes to cancer, so the signal to grow may not be the signal that this cell should be doing. Should this cell be growing when it should be staying still? Is that a signal that is not appropriate? So part of our targets against cancer that are more targeted or specific to particular types of situations is aiming at signal transduction, aiming at the particular signals that get misinterpreted by cells, certain signals that shouldn’t be going to the cells are going to the nucleus in order to stop cancer from developing or from growing, or make them more susceptible to standard chemotherapy as well.

Is one type of cancer worse than another?

Most people hear the word cancer, and to them it’s all the same. There is definitely a difference in the types of cancers that are affecting the human population. And yes, there are some cancers that are malignant tumors but they have a very very high cure rate. There are excellent modes of treatment. And there are others that we know very little about. They’re very lethal and there very few treatments that are available. So yes, in short, there are definitely some cancers that are worse than others

Is cancer on the rise?

Yes, there are probably more people being diagnosed now than ever before. Two, we have better diagnostic capabilities. Three, people are living a lot longer then they were before so the shear number of people that are going to be diagnosed is going to go up.


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