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The anatomy of cancer: What is cancer?

Video: What is cancer?

What is cancer? Cancer experts at Cancer Treatment Centers of America discuss what cancer is and how it can be treated. Watch this five-minute video that explains cancer in everyday terms.

View transcript

Edgar D. Staren: One out of every two men and one out of every three women will be diagnosed with cancer. But despite those huge numbers most individuals don’t know what that really means.

Maurie Markman: At the simplest level, cancer or cancer cells are cells that have lost the ability to follow the normal control that the body exerts on all cells. In our body we have billions and billions of cells and they have different functions. It’s a very complicated process under incredibly phenomenal control and if something goes wrong and that control is lost then particular cells escape the normal control mechanisms and they continue to grow and they may spread. That’s what we call cancer.

Edgar D. Staren: Those cells together, we would call that a tumor. Specifically cancer is a malignant tumor and we call it malignant because not only can it invade into adjacent organs, but unfortunately cancer can spread to other tissues and that can be life threatening.

Maurie Markman: Cancer can actually occur anywhere in the body because there’s cells everywhere in the body. In women one of the most common cancers of course is breast cancer and men prostate cancer. And in both men and women lung cancer and colon cancer are common cancers.

Edgar D. Staren: It’s important to understand that the cancer that occurs in one individual is very different than the cancer that occurs in another, just like those individuals are different. So a lung tumor in one person will be very different from a lung tumor in another person.

Maurie Markman: Once the diagnosis of cancer is made of course the next obvious question is what do you do. There are several things that are really relevant. The stage of the cancer, which is information about where is the cancer. You say it’s a particular kind of cancer. How much cancer is present? Has it spread? Is it in lymph nodes? Has it spread to other organs of the body?

Timothy C. Birdsall: Cancer treatment actually is very complex and part of the reason is because cancer is this constellation of over two hundred different diseases. They have common characteristics but they’re all very different from each other. In addition to that, the cancer itself is not homogeneous. There may be three or four or five or six different slight variations in the cancer cells that are there. People ask why. Why does my cancer not go away? It shrunk by seventy percent. What’s wrong with the other thirty percent? Well it’s probably a different subtype of that cancer which is going to require a different kind of treatment.

Edgar D. Staren: There are three primary therapies for cancer. Surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. Surgery works by directly removing the tumor. Radiation therapy provides x-rays to kill individual cells and the chemotherapy provides chemicals that can kill those individual cells. But they have side effects.

Donald P. Braun: The best therapies that we can produce really are the result of optimizing the amount of tumor that we can kill by any treatment and minimizing the amount of damage that we cause to the normal cells that would be affected by that treatment.

Timothy C. Birdsall: At Cancer Treatment Centers of America, we have a very robust integrative oncology program. Integrative oncology is taking those conventional oncology treatments and integrating those with therapies like acupuncture, naturopathic medicine, chiropractic, nutrition. To blend those together and to create the most appropriate treatment plan for that individual patient at that moment in time.

Donald P. Braun: Cancer Treatment Centers of America has invested in a model in which all of the effects of cancer and its therapy are aggressively treated and managed. It’s not just enough to kill the cancer, if we don’t treat the pain, the fatigue, the depression, or the anxiety that comes with a diagnosis of cancer.

Timothy C. Birdsall: Receiving a diagnosis of cancer can be a frightening thing. The good news is that today is probably the most exciting time in history in terms of the treatment of cancer. Options that didn’t exist a few months ago certainly didn’t exist a few years ago, like the ability to genomically profile a tumor, and to take that individualized finger print of that cancer may direct us to tailor treatment in very specific ways.

Maurie Markman: We believe that in the future, many of our patients with a number of different tumor types will eventually be able to benefit from the advances in precision medicine.

Edgar D. Staren: There are very hopeful options that are available to us as clinicians to make a difference in patients lives and it’s therefore just as important for patients to know that, so they have those hopeful options and they take advantage of them.

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