Cancer – What is it?

Many cancers are caused by a combination of ageing, genetics and uncontrollable factors and lifestyle choices such as smoking. There are more than 100 different types of cancers. Generally speaking cancer refers to a disease where abnormal cells divide without control, and able to invade surrounding tissues, causing further damage. Cancer spreads when cancer cells travel to new areas through blood and lymph systems. Most cancers are named for the organ or type of cell in which they start (primary site) and are grouped into categories. These are:

  • Carcinoma – cancer that begins in the skin or in tissues that line or cover internal organs;
  • Melanoma – cancer that begins in melanocytes (pigment cells which give skin its colour);
  • Sarcoma – cancer that begins in bone, cartilage, fat, muscle, blood vessels, or other connective or supportive tissue;
  • Leukaemia – cancer that starts in blood-forming tissue such as the bone marrow, causing large numbers of abnormal blood cells to be produced and enter the blood.
  • Lymphoma and myeloma – cancers that begin in the cells of the immune system; and
  • Central nervous system cancers – cancers that begin in the tissues of the brain and spinal cord

In all cases, catching the disease early is the key, so looking after your health and being aware of any changes in your body is essential, as are regular checks with your doctor.

extracts from Hospital Life – The Alfred Foundation, Autumn 2014

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