Here’s How Cancer Actually Develops In the Body

Cancer is one of the most daunting diseases one could ever contract. Treatment options vary depending on the type, but no matter what kind you’re battling, it’s a long road. So how does cancer choose its victims? Here’s how the dangerous disease actually develops in your body.

A human chest showing lung cancer

The best protection against cancer is early detection. | stockdevil/Getty Images

Cancer starts in the cells

“Cancer” is the blanket term for abnormal cell growth. Cells are what keep our body functioning — there are more than 100 trillion of them in the human body. There are many different types of cells, and each cell requires a specific number for proper bodily function.

The disease develops when the body’s cell growth control mechanism malfunctions

The body has many responsibilities. It wakes you up in the morning, it digests your food, and it fights off infections from the outside world. It also controls the number of cells it produces. But the body doesn’t always do everything perfectly. Sometimes, the nucleus of the cell, which is the part of the cell that controls growth, malfunctions. The nucleus contains genes, and a malfunction of those genes is called a mutation. When a mutation occurs, the nucleus sends the wrong signals, and the cell produces far more of itself than it should because it can no longer understand the growth signals from its nucleus.

When cell growth spirals out of control, the cells need somewhere to go. They develop into a mass of tissue, known as a tumor.

Malignant tumors are dangerous because they take over the body’s organs

Tumors are balls of too many cells, and the cells have produced abnormally, meaning they can’t function the way a regular cell can. When these abnormal cells grow rapidly, they don’t fit comfortably inside the body. They ball up into a mass in the body called a tumor.

There are two types of tumors: Benign and malignant. Benign tumors are masses of cells that have grown to their biggest point and no longer pose a deadly threat to the body. They’re essentially non-cancerous masses that may be inconvenient and painful but aren’t deadly. Malignant tumors, however, are much more dangerous. Malignant tumors are cell masses that do not stop growing. Instead, they metastasize, or invade organs in the body. Malignant tumors contain cells that have enzymes capable of destroying tissue. This means in addition to a growth of bad cells, they’re also destroying the body’s good cells. Malignant tumors are cancerous.

A couple of factors play a role in whether your cancer is lethal

If a tumor is a tumor no matter where it is in the body, then why are some cancers more fatal than others? There are several factors at play.

Timing plays a major role. Some cancers, such as breast cancer, can be caught extremely early with mammographic technology. Women should have a mammography done every year once they hit middle age. The earlier the cancer is caught, the fewer bad cells have been produced, and treatment is often successful. However, certain cancers, such as pancreatic cancer, don’t show symptoms until very late stages. This means by the time pancreatic cancer shows itself, it has often done so much damage that it cannot be reversed. As a result, pancreatic cancer survival rates are extremely low.

When too many bad cells have taken over the body, even the most aggressive treatments aren’t enough to stop them. Cancer is also diagnosed by its stage, which is a measurement of how much cancer is in the body. Stage I breast cancer means the cancer has stayed in only the breast area; stage IV breast cancer means it has spread from the breasts to lymph nodes and beyond into other parts of the body.

Infection also plays a role in cancer fatality. For example, someone with leukemia has cancer cells attacking the cells in their blood; this reduces their number of red and white blood cells, plus platelets. Since these good cells are required to fight off infection, someone with leukemia has trouble fighting off even the smallest illness. Seemingly small infections can be lethal in certain cancer patients.

The likelihood of certain cancers plays a role in survival rates because there are more treatment options. Since breast cancer is so common, it is heavily funded. This allows  researchers to develop breast-cancer-specific treatments. But since pancreatic cancer is so rare, it doesn’t receive the same amount of funding. This makes it more difficult for treatment options to be develeoped.

The best protection is early detection

Cancer that is caught in its earliest stage is the most treatable. That’s why doctors recommend tests such as mammographies, prostate exams, and colonoscopies in people over a certain age. When cancer is caught early, it can often go into remission. This happens when treatment is able to rid the body of all of its cancer cells. Remission is the best possible fate with cancer, since there is no cure. However, even in remission, there is always a chance the cancer could come back.

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