Cancer Treatment Centers of America

Anatomy of Cancer: Understanding a disease that affects millions

When you hear the word “cancer,” what comes to mind?

Is it the fear of ever being diagnosed? Or of watching the person closest to you get the news? Maybe it’s the triumphant feeling of having battled the disease until it’s finally in remission.

Many people associate cancer with the emotions it evokes: the shock, the sadness, the bravery and the exhilaration. Why cancer develops and why it responds to certain treatments is more of a mystery.

About 13 million Americans have cancer and more than 1 million are diagnosed every year.

To shed light on the disease, CTCA developed The Anatomy of Cancer, a five-minute video that explains cancer in everyday terms. The goal of the video is to answer the key questions so many people have about cancer.

What is cancer?

Cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells in the body. In the body, there are trillions of cells with various functions. These cells grow and divide to help the body function properly. Cells die when they become old or damaged, and new cells replace them.

Cancer develops when the body’s normal control mechanism stops working. Old cells do not die and cells grow out of control, forming new, abnormal cells. These extra cells may form a mass of tissue, called a tumor. Some cancers, such as leukemia, do not form tumors.

There are five main categories of cancer:

  • Carcinomas begin in the skin or tissues that line the internal organs.
  • Sarcomas develop in the bone, cartilage, fat, muscle or other connective tissues.
  • Leukemia begins in the blood and bone marrow.
  • Lymphomas start in the immune system.
  • Central nervous system cancers develop in the brain and spinal cord.

Cancer can occur anywhere in the body. In women, breast cancer is most common. In men, it’s prostate cancer. Lung cancer and colorectal cancer affect both men and women in high numbers.

How is cancer treated?

The same cancer type—whether it’s liver cancer, stomach cancer or kidney cancer—in one individual is very different from that cancer in another individual. In fact, cancer is not one disease but hundreds of different types of diseases. Within a single type of cancer, such as breast cancer, researchers are discovering subtypes that each requires a different treatment approach.

Treatment options depend on the type of cancer, its stage, if the cancer has spread and your general health. The three main treatments are:

The goal of treatment is to kill as many cancerous cells while minimizing damage to normal cells nearby. Advances in technology make this possible. For example, intraoperative radiation therapy (IORT) delivers a concentrated dose of radiation to a tumor site immediately after surgery. Healthy tissues and organs are shielded during treatment, which allows for a higher dose of radiation.

In recent years, doctors have been able to offer treatment options based on the genetic changes occurring in a specific tumor. An innovative new diagnostic tool, the genomic tumor assessment, examines a patient’s tumor genetically to help identify mechanisms that may be responsible for the cancer's growth. Genomic tumor assessment can result in a more personalized approach to cancer treatment.

Learn about our approach to treating cancer.