Nowadays, there is rarely a person who has not been touched by cancer. Someone close to you, a loved one, a friend, a co-worker or through the stories we encounter via media make it seem like cancer is everywhere and it can really scare us. Cancer has such a stigma that almost everybody thinks it is the always end of the world for someone who is afflicted. In my clinic, the most common questions asked beg for an explanation to help ease the pain. Questions like “How did it happen?”, “What caused this cancer?”, “How come it happened so quickly?”, “Can my family get infected with this disease now that I have it?” are often thrown at me.
I always go through great lengths to help the patient and family understand what is happening no matter how many times it is necessary to repeat the same things. I may not always cure the patient but I know that by being patient and understanding, I can somehow give comfort. Knowledge is power and it often makes a big difference in the patient’s and family’s journey.
So what is cancer and where does it come from? In order to understand what cancer is, we first need to understand what is normal.
All of us, embryos, children, teens and adults are made up of cells. In science books, we give the cell credit as being the basic functioning unit of the body. Cells are not visible with the naked eye. We need a microscope to see them. However, they are powerhouses. They enable us to be who we are and to be literally alive.
A fantastic thing about cells is that they have a definite lifespan. Like everything in life, they are also subject to wear and tear. But nature is all-giving. It has enabled man to live a very long life without the constant need for repairs. Nature has programmed the normal cell to die after serving its useful time but it has made sure that before the cell dies, it must first give rise to new cells (the process is called MITOSIS) that will take over the function. In this way, survival of the organism and optimum performance are ensured.
Whereas birth of the new cells is ensured, death of the old cells must also be certain. This is called programmed cell death or APOPTOSIS. If this does not happen, there will be an overgrowth of cells that can impair the functions of the body. This is actually one of the problems in cancer. Some of the old and damaged cells become stubborn and don’t die as they should. This usually happens when the normal cells have undergone a series of changes (MUTATION) that have transformed them into nasty elements that no longer obey the laws of the body. They continue to multiply unabated and rapidly. They migrate to other parts of the body (METASTASIZE) or invade surrounding structures. These are the hallmarks of cancer. They grow endlessly and destroy the organism. They interfere with the normal functions of body parts and compete with normal cells for nutrients causing the body to loss weight and become weak.
So what causes these normal cells to transform and develop cancer? The body has a mechanism that enables itself to repair damages here and there. Cancer develops when the body’s capacity to repair itself has been overwhelmed by constant damage. There are instances, however, when a patient may develop cancer because he is carrying the genes (heredity) that predispose him to the condition. Sometimes, just carrying the cancer gene may already cause a patient to develop cancer. However, not because a person has the genes for developing cancer will automatically make him have the disease. Patients can lower this risk by maintaining a healthy lifestyle especially avoiding smoking. Alternatively, the patient can undergo cancer screening to detect the cancer while there are no symptoms allowing us to detect the cancer at a very curable stage.
There is no single factor that causes of cancer. The truth is, we do not know exactly what causes cancer. However, we know that there are certain things that can increase a person’s chances of developing the disease. The causes are multifactorial and involve an interplay of genes or heredity, lifestyle, chemical exposure (such as asbestos, industrial solvents), radiation (exposure to nuclear plant explosion), viruses (Human papilloma virus or HPV, Hepatitis B virus) and of course SMOKING.