Cancer, known medically as a malignant neoplasm, is a broad group of various diseases, all involving unregulated cell growth. In cancer, cells divide and grow uncontrollably, forming malignant tumors, and invade nearby parts of the body. The cancer may also spread to more distant parts of the body through the lymphatic system or bloodstream. Not all tumors are cancerous. Benign tumors do not grow uncontrollably, do not invade neighboring tissues, and do not spread throughout the body. There are over 200 different known cancers that afflict humans.
Cancer can be detected in a number of ways, including the presence of certain signs and symptoms, screening tests, or medical imaging. Once a possible cancer is detected it is diagnosed by microscopic examination of a tissue sample. Cancer is usually treated with chemotherapy, radiation therapy and surgery. The chances of surviving the disease vary greatly by the type and location of the cancer and the extent of disease at the start of treatment.
While cancer can affect people of all ages, and a few types of cancer are more common in children, the risk of developing cancer generally increases with age. In 2007, cancer caused about 13% of all human deaths worldwide. Rates are rising as more people live to an old age and as mass lifestyle changes occur in the developing world.
Cancers are classified by the type of cell that the tumor cells resemble and are therefore presumed to be the origin of the tumor. These types include:
• Carcinoma: Cancers derived from epithelial cells. This group includes many of the most common cancers, particularly in the aged, and include nearly all those developing in the breast, prostate, lung, pancreas, and colon. • Sarcoma: Cancers arising from connective tissue (i.e. bone, cartilage, fat, nerve), each of which develop from cells originating inmesenchymal cells outside the bone marrow. • Lymphoma and leukemia: These two classes of cancer arise from hematopoietic (blood-forming) cells that leave the marrow and tend to mature in the lymph nodes and blood, respectively. Leukemia is the most common type of cancer in children accounting for about 30%. • Germ cell tumor: Cancers derived from pluripotent cells, most often presenting in the testicle or the ovary (seminoma and dysgerminoma, respectively). • Blastoma: Cancers derived from immature “precursor” cells or embryonic tissue. Blastomas are more common in children than in older adults.
Cancers are usually named using -carcinoma, -sarcoma or -blastoma as a suffix, with the Latin or Greek word for the organ or tissue of origin as the root. For example, cancers of the liver parenchyma arising from malignant epithelial cells is called hepatocarcinoma, while a malignancy arising from primitive liver precursor cells is called a hepatoblastoma, and a cancer arising from fat cells is called a liposarcoma. For some common cancers, the English organ name is used. For example, the most common type of breast cancer is called ductal carcinoma of the breast. Here, the adjective ductal refers to the appearance of the cancer under the microscope, which suggests that it has originated in the milk ducts.
Benign tumors (which are not cancers) are named using -oma as a suffix with the organ name as the root. For example, a benign tumor of smooth muscle cells is called aleiomyoma (the common name of this frequently occurring benign tumor in the uterus is fibroid). Confusingly, some types of cancer use the -noma suffix, examples including melanoma and seminoma.
Some types of cancer are named for the size and shape of the cells under a microscope, such as giant cell carcinoma, spindle cell carcinoma, and small cell carcinoma.
Management options for cancer exist with the primary ones including surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and palliative care. Which treatments are used depends upon the type, location and grade of the cancer as well as the person’s health and wishes.
Palliative care Palliative care refers to treatment which attempts to make the patient feel better and may or may not be combined with an attempt to attack the cancer. Palliative care includes action to reduce the physical, emotional, spiritual, and psycho-social distress experienced by people with cancer. Unlike treatment that is aimed at directly killing cancer cells, the primary goal of palliative care is to improve the patient’s quality of life.
Patients at all stages of cancer treatment need some kind of palliative care to comfort them. In some cases, medical specialty professional organizations recommend that patients and physicians respond to cancer only with palliative care and not with cancer-directed therapy.
Those cases have the following characteristics: 1. patient has low performance status, corresponding with limited ability to care for oneself 2. patient received no benefit from prior evidence-based treatments 3. patient is ineligible to participate in any appropriate clinical trial 4. the physician sees no strong evidence that treatment would be effective Palliative care is often confused with hospice and therefore only involved when people approach end of life. Like hospice care, palliative care attempts to help the person cope with the immediate needs and to increase the person’s comfort. Unlike hospice care, palliative care does not require people to stop treatment aimed at prolonging their lives or curing the cancer.
Multiple national medical guidelines recommend early palliative care for people whose cancer has produced distressing symptoms (pain, shortness of breath, fatigue, nausea) or who need help coping with their illness. In people who have metastatic disease when first diagnosed, oncologists should consider a palliative care consult immediately. Additionally, an oncologist should consider a palliative care consult in any patient they feel has a prognosis of less than 12 months even if continuing aggressive treatment.
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