Finding out you have cancer can present many changes for you and your loved ones. Simply having answers to your questions can help you feel more in control and less worried about what lies ahead. To help you and your family as you work through your fears and concerns about cancer and its treatment, we offer answers to some common questions and give you an idea of what you can expect from the people and services that are there to help you cope with cancer.
Cancer is not just one disease – there are many types of cancer. It can start in different places in the body. Cancer can start in the lungs, the breast, the colon, or even in the blood. Cancers are alike in some ways, but they can be different in the ways they grow and spread.
The cells in our bodies all have their own jobs to do. Normal cells divide in a certain way. When they’re worn out or damaged, they’re replaced with new cells. Cancer is a disease in which cells aren’t normal. Cancer cells keep on growing out of control, making new cells that don’t die. These cells crowd out normal cells. This causes problems in the part of the body where the cancer started.
Cancer cells can also spread to other parts of the body and cause problems in those places. For instance, cancer cells in the lung can travel to the bones and grow there. When cancer cells spread, it’s called metastasis (meh-TAS-tuh-sis). But when lung cancer cells start to grow in the bones, it’s still called lung cancer. Cancers are named for where they start, not where they end up.
Some cancers tend to grow and spread very quickly. Others grow more slowly. They also respond to treatment in different ways. Some types of cancer are best treated with surgery. Others do better with drugs or radiation treatments. Often 2 or more treatments are used to get the best results. (We talk about this in the section called “ Common types of cancer treatment.”)
When someone has cancer, the doctor will want to find out what kind of cancer it is. People with cancer need treatment that’s aimed at their type of cancer.
Although every patient and family member wants to know the answer to this question, the reason people develop cancer is not well understood. There are some known carcinogens (materials that can cause cancer), but many are still undiscovered. We do not know why some people who are exposed to carcinogens get cancer and others do not. The length and amount of exposure are believed to affect the chances of developing a disease. For example, as exposure to cigarette smoking increases, the chance of developing lung cancer also increases. Genetics also plays an important role in whether an individual develops cancer. For example, certain types of breast cancer have a genetic component.
Following your diagnosis of cancer, your reaction may be one of shock and disbelief. If you have been told that chemotherapy or radiation therapy are an important part of your treatment, many unpleasant images may come to mind. But as you move beyond that initial shock to begin the journey of surviving your cancer, you have many good reasons to be optimistic. Medicine has made—and continues to make—great strides in treating cancer and in making cancer treatment more tolerable, both physically and emotionally.
No one would call cancer a normal experience, but by proactively managing aspects of your treatment, you can maintain a sense of normalcy in your life. Fighting cancer is not a challenge you face alone. It’s a team effort that involves family, friends, and your healthcare team. Don’t overlook the strength that can come from having your support network by your side.
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