My stem cell transplant has been put off for a while until I see some improvement of severe peripheral neuropathy in my feet and legs caused by the chemotherapy I received. So I am at home biding my time and able to continue writing for the foreseeable future. I’d like to begin today a three-part series on cancer.
Cancer definition and a description
When my oncologist told me that I had multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer, all I could hear was the dreaded word “cancer.” I felt as if I had just received a death sentence. Even as a seasoned physician I found this difficult to accept. Throughout my career it was always other people who got cancer, not me. When I shared this news with my wife we both had a good cry. It wasn’t until I was told that of all the known cancers—multiple myeloma has one of the most successful treatments for remission—was I then able to get a grip on reality and wanted to get started with treatment.
Since my diagnosis, it seems that everyone I talk to has either had cancer, or has a family member or friend with cancer. It struck me that cancer is a lot more prevalent in our society than I had realized.
What exactly is cancer? Cancer is a group of diseases characterized by uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells that have the ability to spread to and destroy normal body tissue. Cancer cells may stay in one location only or they can spread to all parts of the body by traveling through the blood stream or the lymph system. Once cancer cells arrive at their final destination, they begin to grow and destroy normal tissue. When cancer spreads in this manner it is referred to as metastasis.
Cancer can be caused by internal factors such as genetic mutations, immune system conditions and metabolic disorders, and also by external factors, such as radiation or chemical exposures, tobacco or alcohol use, and even by infectious organisms.
As I have found out, anyone can develop cancer. The risk of cancer increases with age, with the majority of cancers occurring in those above 55 years of age. Sadly, it can also affect the very young. The risk for getting cancer over the course of a lifetime is one in two for men and for women it is one in three. In other words, one-half of all men and one-third of all women can expect to develop some form of cancer during their lifetimes. Only about five percent of all cancers are due to heredity (an internal factor) and the remainder are due to damage to genes occurring during one’s lifetime (the external factors as mentioned above).
About 15 million Americans are living with cancer. It is expected that over a million and a half new cases of cancer will occur this year. Almost 600,000 people will die this year from cancer which works out to more than 1,500 people a day. Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the U.S. exceeded only by heart disease. The cost of cancer is high, with some $100 billion being spent on direct medical care and treatment and about $125 billion of lost productivity due to premature death.
Common symptoms of cancer are:
- A change in weight, especially unintended weight loss.
- Significant fatigue or unexplained increasing pain.
- Changes of skin color, or texture or changes to an existing skin mole, or a sore that doesn’t heal.
- Persistent cough, difficulty swallowing, or hoarseness.
- Changes in bowel or bladder habits.
Risk factors for cancer include:
- Age. Since cancer can take long to develop it most commonly occurs later in life.
- Habits. Smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, exposure to the sun or tanning facilities, and unsafe sex.
- Environmental. Exposure to certain chemicals and second-hand smoke.
- Family history. Cancer development passed on through genes.
- Excess weight and lack of exercise.
There is some good news amongst all this information about cancer and that is that the survival rate for most cancers is improving. This encouraging improvement is due to earlier diagnosis of many cancers, as well as improvement of treatments.
In my next article I will discuss some of the most common types of cancers.
- Terry Hollenbeck, M.D., is an urgent-care physician at Palo Alto Medical Foundation Santa Cruz in Scotts Valley. Readers can view his previous columns on his website, valleydoctor.wordpress.com, or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Information in this column is not intended to replace advice from your own health care professional. For any medical concern, consult your own doctor.