Cancer 101 : What is Cancer?
Strip away all of the emotional baggage that the word carries.
Cancer is a badly programmed cell.
Every cell in your body carries code that makes it work. The code
is carried in protein molecules that we know as DNA. The DNA is
strung together in pretty double helix forms that make up your
the genetic code programs the cell to tell it what it is and what
it should do.
know the story, one egg and one sperm cell join together to create
a single cell.
egg portion carries the genetic code from the mother's side of
the family. The sperm contributes the father's characteristics.
This single cell splits in to two, then four, then eight cells
until it gets large enough to begin getting specialized.
genes start their work
cells become muscles, others are directed to nervous system work.
Eyes are created with different colors, hair with color and texture,
skin with more or less melanin to make it darker or lighter, bones,
teeth, toes and fingers all separate out and multiply into a complete
and complex human being.
does all of this have to do with cancer?
While genes cause cells to multiply, they also cause cells to
die when they get older and stop functioning correctly. For some
reason - or many reasons - this programmed cell death (apoptosis)
is sometimes left out of the genetic code in certain cells.
Some of the bad programming starts as far back as the egg and
sperm. The BRCA gene mutations that run in families and increase
risk of breast cancer are this type of miscoding. They account
for less than ten percent of all breast cancer. The majority of
mutations - changes in the DNA program passed from cell to cell
- are caused by other things.
No one is quite sure what those others things are. We do know
that some toxins in our environment are carcenogenic - cancer
causing. Smoking cigarettes can cause changes in the cells in
your lungs and other areas that start cancer. More research needs
to be done to find other elements in the things we eat and drink
- and breathe - that cause these changes.
What happens then is, instead of dying and making space for a
fresh young cell, the old cell stays and keeps multiplying. The
cells that come from the cell with the bad code carry the mistake
and they also refuse to clear out when they should.
result is a colony of cells that keep growing and take up space
that normal cells need. This clump of confused cells is called
tumors are benign
They just grow in their space and have no interest in moving anywhere
else. They don't grow very fast and most of the time they don't
interfere with the other cells around them. While they shouldn't
be where they are, they usually don't cause any trouble.
tumors are malignant
They grow faster than the other cells around them. Because they
are growing so fast, they need more food and space than the normal
cells. They get the food by creating a network of blood vessels
that brings extra nutrition to their door. This extra food going
to the tumor cells robs the normal cells of vital energy. These
tumors not only grow, they kill the cells in the neighborhood
who are not like them. These tumors are malignant - cancer.
tumors may spread
They may also decide that they need more space. That's when they
send seedling cells out into the blood stream to start colonies
in other areas. These cells find new homes in other organs and
begin growing and killing the cells around them. No matter where
the cells settle, they are still identified by their original
home. That's why you can have breast cancer metastases in the
lungs or liver and it is still called breast cancer.
breast cancer likes to grow
Now that you understand what cancer is and how it starts, you
need to know a little about the cells that make up the breast
to understand how cancer starts there.