What Is Cancer? Understanding Its Causes and Symptoms

Health care jargon explained
Health insurance 101
Health plans
Healthcare industry

Understanding Cancer

Cancer, a term that often evokes fear and confusion, is fundamentally a condition where cells in a specific part of the body grow and reproduce uncontrollably. These cancerous cells can invade and destroy surrounding healthy tissue, including organs. Cancer isn't just one disease but many diseases, with over 200 different types, each classified by the type of cell that is initially affected.

The development of cancer, a process that can stem from genetic mutations, often involves the transformation of normal cells into cancer cells. This transformation can result from a variety of factors, including genetic predisposition, lifestyle choices, and environmental exposures. A crucial aspect of cancer is the role of the tumor suppressor gene. These genes are responsible for slowing down cell division, repairing DNA mistakes, or telling cells when to die—a process known as apoptosis. When these genes do not function correctly due to mutations, cells can grow out of control, leading to cancer.

Benign vs Malignant Tumors

Understanding the distinction between benign and malignant tumors is crucial in the realm of oncology. Benign tumors, while still abnormal growths, are not cancerous and typically grow slowly. They don’t invade nearby tissues or metastasize to distant parts of the body. In contrast, malignant tumors are cancerous and can invade surrounding tissues, spreading through the body. This process of metastasis is a defining characteristic of cancer and contributes significantly to what makes it so dangerous.

The growth of tumors, benign or malignant, is a complex process. It involves the uncontrolled division of cells, influenced by various factors, including genetic mutations and environmental triggers. However, it's important to note that not all tumors are cancerous, and benign tumors can sometimes become malignant through further genetic changes.

Recognizing the Signs of Cancer

Cancer signs and symptoms can vary greatly, depending on the type and stage of the disease. Common signs include lumps or swelling, unexplained weight loss, persistent fatigue, and changes in bowel or bladder habits. Breast cancer may present as a lump in the breast or changes in breast appearance, while lung cancer might manifest through persistent coughing or breathing difficulties.

Early detection of cancer through self-examination and regular screenings is vital. For example, mammography for breast cancer and colonoscopy for colorectal cancer can detect the disease in its early stages, when treatment is more likely to be successful. However, not all cancers present early symptoms, which means someone could have cancer and not know it. This highlights the importance of regular medical check-ups and screening for individuals at risk.

Demystifying Cancer's Myths

There are many misconceptions about cancer that need clarification. For instance, the belief that all tumors are deadly is inaccurate. As discussed, benign tumors, while they can cause problems depending on their location and size, are not cancerous. Another common myth is that cancer is always hereditary. While genetics play a role in some cancers, environmental and lifestyle factors are also significant contributors.

Post-Cancer Life: Survival and Beyond

The journey doesn't end after cancer treatment. Survivors often face physical and emotional challenges, such as fatigue, depression, and anxiety. However, there are numerous resources available to support survivors in their post-cancer life. Stories of cancer survivors provide hope and inspiration, showing that life after cancer can be fulfilling and meaningful.

Addressing Common Questions and Concerns

Can Cancer Be Prevented?

While not all cancers can be prevented, certain lifestyle changes can significantly reduce one's risk. These include avoiding tobacco, maintaining a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and limiting alcohol consumption. Regular screenings and vaccinations, like the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, also play a critical role in cancer prevention.

Understanding Cancer Causes and Risks

The causes of cancer are multifaceted. Factors like genetic mutations, environmental exposures (e.g., to carcinogens like tobacco smoke or radiation), and lifestyle choices can increase the risk of developing cancer. For specific types, such as pancreatic cancer, the causes might include a combination of genetic predisposition and environmental factors.

The Role of Diagnosis and Treatment

Diagnosing cancer often involves a range of tests, including biopsies, imaging tests, and blood tests. Once a cancer diagnosis is confirmed, treatment options may include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, targeted therapy, or immunotherapy. The choice of treatment depends on the type and stage of cancer, as well as the patient's overall health.

The Promise of Cancer Research

Ongoing cancer research continues to offer new insights into cancer causes, prevention, and treatment. Advances in areas like genetic testing, targeted therapy, and immunotherapy are revolutionizing the way cancer is treated, leading to improved cancer survival rates and quality of life for patients.


Cancer, in its myriad forms, continues to be a significant health challenge. Understanding the differences between benign and malignant tumors, recognizing the signs of cancer, and debunking common myths are essential steps in addressing this challenge. With continuous advancements in cancer research and treatment, there is hope for those affected by cancer, both during and after their journey.

Welcome to Decent: a new kind of health plan.

Join our monthly newsletter to stay in the know!