Cancer develops when cells in a part of the body begin to grow out of control. Although there are many kinds of cancer, they all start because of out-of-control growth of abnormal cells.
Normal body cells grow, divide, and die in an orderly fashion. During the early years of a person’s life, normal cells divide more rapidly until the person becomes an adult. After that, cells in most parts of the body divide only to replace worn-out or dying cells and to repair injuries.
Because cancer cells continue to grow and divide, they are different from normal cells. Instead of dying, they outlive normal cells and continue to form new abnormal cells.
Cancer cells develop because of damage to DNA. This substance is in every cell and directs all activities. Most of the time when DNA becomes damaged the body is able to repair it. In cancer cells, the damaged DNA is not repaired. People can inherit damaged DNA, which accounts for inherited cancers. More often, though, a person’s DNA becomes damaged by exposure to something in the environment, like smoking.
Cancer usually forms as a tumor. Some cancers, like leukemia, do not form tumors. Instead, these cancer cells involve the blood and blood-forming organs and circulate through other tissues where they grow.
Often, cancer cells travel to other parts of the body where they begin to grow and replace normal tissue. This process is called metastasis. Regardless of where a cancer may spread, however, it is always named for the place it began. For instance, breast cancer that spreads to the liver is still called breast cancer, not liver cancer.
Not all tumors are cancerous. Benign (noncancerous) tumors do not spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body and, with very rare exceptions, are not life threatening.
Different types of cancer can behave very differently. For example, lung cancer and breast cancer are very different diseases. They grow at different rates and respond to different treatments. That is why people with cancer need treatment that is aimed at their particular kind of cancer.
Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States. Half of all men and one third of all women in the United States will develop cancer during their lifetimes. Today, millions of people are living with cancer or have had cancer. The risk of developing most types of cancer can be reduced by changes in a person’s lifestyle, for example, by quitting smoking and eating a better diet. The sooner a cancer is found and treatment begins, the better are the chances for living for many years.