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The Definition of Cancer

written by: BStone • edited by: Diana Cooper • updated: 1/13/2011

What is the definition of cancer? Learn more about what occurs in the body when someone has cancer and why this disease can be difficult to overcome.

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    What is Cancer?

    Cancer is a disease in which cancerous cells multiply, develop into growths, and continue to grow and eventually spread, invading tissue and disrupting metabolic and organ functioning. There are over 100 types of cancer, some are more common then others, and some are more deadly then others. Cancer can form in skin, bone, blood vessels, organ tissue, fat, muscle, connective tissue, bone marrow, the brain, and even in the cells of the immune system. While the range of diseases that involve a cancerous growth is wide, from leukemia to skin cancer, they all share the same problem —the uncontrollable division and spread of abnormal cells.

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    Healthy Cells, Cancerous Cells

    Understanding what the definition of cancer is is a matter of understanding abnormal cell division. Cells in the body are always dividing to replace dead cells and to repair damaged tissue. Cell division is a constant and a completely normal and healthy process. Old and damaged cells die when they need to and new, healthy cells form and replace them.

    Sometimes the DNA within cells becomes damaged, leading to dangerous mutations which can disrupt healthy cell growth and division. Normally, the body is able to destroy these cells; sometimes however they are not destroyed. These abnormal cells then divide, recopying the faulty DNA with each division. If the body cannot control the division then a cancerous growth forms. In this case the growth, or tumor, is malignant. It is capable of causing harm and of metastasizing, or spreading from the primary location to other parts of the body via the lymphatic system, the bloodstream, or cerebrospinal fluid.

    There are cases in which cells multiply and form growths that are not cancerous. In this situation the growth is benign, not malignant, and cancer is not present. The tumor does not threaten well-being and it does not have the ability to spread; it can be removed and there is no threat of a new growth.

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    What Causes Cancer?

    smoking Why do these cancerous cells form? What exactly causes cancer? It is unknown what initiates this process, and it is unlikely that there is one definable 'thing' that damages cells and starts the uncontrollable cell division. Every body reacts differently to this disease and every individual experience is unique.

    There are however factors which can contribute to the likeliness of the formation of abnormal cells and the division of these cells into an uncontrollable, cancerous growth. Exposure to toxins and environmental pollutants, lifestyle habits such as smoking and exposure to UV rays, and a high-fat, low-fiber diet can all potentially contribute to this process. Likewise, eating a healthy diet, rich in nutrient antioxidants and fiber, avoiding potential carcinogens as much as possible, and limiting sun exposure are all factors that may decrease the risk of cancer fighting vegetables developing cancer.

    Exactly what then is the definition of cancer? It is all of the diseases that involve uncontrollable division of abnormal cells which are able to invade tissue. While much is known about this disease, much is still unknown. Having a basic understanding of how cell division changes when cancer occurs can give you an idea of the nature of this disease. There are so many questions remaining, but there are also endless possibilities for cancer prevention, management, and treatment.

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    References

    National Cancer Institute <http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/cancerlibrary/what-is-cancer>

    Balch, Phyllis A. "Prescription for Nutritional Healing." Fourth Edition (Penguin Books, 2006).

    photo by Conan

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