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Exploring the Basics of Cancer

By Catherine Pei & Vania Ahmadi

Medical Marvels Los Angeles Chapter

Cancer is a prevalent disease, affecting about 1 in 3 people in the world. It is also the second leading cause of death in the United States. What exactly is cancer, and what causes this deadly disease?

– About Cancer –

Cancer is defined as the body’s uncontrollable cell division, often forming tumors. A malignant tumor is one that is infectious and will spread throughout the body without limit. A benign tumor, on the other hand, is not as dangerous and harmful as malignant tumors and will remain in one area. Solid cancer is characterized by the growth of malignant tumors, while liquid cancer does not form such a tumor.

Carcinoma is the most common type of cancer, and it begins its division in the epithelial tissue. This type of tissue includes the skin, the lining of organs, etc. Since this type of cancer results in a tissue uncontrollably dividing, it forms a tumor, indicating solid cancer. Sarcoma, a solid tumor, begins in the soft tissue of the body, such as the joints, bones, fat, and muscles. A type of liquid cancer is leukemia, which affects the blood marrow or blood cells. Healthy blood cells will start to divide uncontrollably, affecting the creation of new and healthy blood cells. Lymphomas are cancers of the lymphatic system, and myelomas originate from the liquid plasma portion of the blood.

– Causes –  

There are many different factors that can lead to the development of cancer. These include external factors as well as hereditary factors. To understand why these factors cause cancer, it should be understood that the ultimate cause of cancer is mutations in the DNA sequence. Mutations will cause a cell’s function to change, therefore resulting in abnormal behavior that will affect the cell’s division. Some factors that may increase the risk of cancer include:

  • Cigarette smoking

  • Over-exposure to radiation

  • Excessive alcohol use

  • Exposure to chemicals

  • Unhealthy diet

  • Family history of cancer

Mutations that cause cancer can either be inherited or acquired. Inherited mutations are due to family history, since specific mutations are passed down by generation. On the other hand, acquired mutations occur throughout one’s lifetime as the individual is exposed to different risk factors like cigarettes, radiation, alcohol, and chemicals. Overall, the likelihood of cancer increases by factors that cause mutations, whether acquired or inherited.

– Symptoms –

Being aware of how your body is feeling is important, so knowing the different symptoms for cancer can be helpful. On the other hand, the symptoms that are listed are very general and can just be an indication of an irregularity within the body, so these symptoms don’t always indicate that one has cancer. Common symptoms that occurs with cancer include:

  • Heavy nighttime sweats and fevers

  • Excessive fatigue

  • Unexplained bruising/bleeding

  • Unusual lumps or swelling throughout the body

  • Unexplained/extreme weight loss

  • Indigestion

  • Abnormal periods

  • Changes in bathroom habits

  • Difficulty swallowing

Changes in the appearance such as a new birthmark or mole are also crucial and should be inspected by a healthcare provider. Use the mnemonic ABCDE to know which changes may be concerning. Please note that the changes shown below are not always signs of cancer.. The individual is advised to consult a healthcare provider for a further diagnosis. 

                  Asymmetry - One half of the mole/mark does not look like the other half

                  Border - The edges of the mole/mark are irregular or jagged

                  Color - The mole/mark is inconsistent in color, appearing both brown and black

                  Diameter - The mole/mark is larger than the diameter of a pencil eraser

                  Evolving - The mole/mark undergoes changes in appearance over time

– Treatments – 

There are multiple types of treatments for cancer, each depending on the specific stage and type of cancer. While some people only undergo one type of treatment, most go through a combination of treatments.

Biomarker testing is a method of looking for proteins, genes, and other substances that may provide further information about the cancer. This testing allows doctors to know which cancer treatment(s) are necessary for the patient. These treatments use chemicals or other means to remove the cancer and can include:

  • Chemotherapy -the most common treatment, uses drugs to kill cancer cells

  • Hormone therapy - slows or stops the hormonal growth of specific cancers

  • Hyperthermia - body tissue is heated to as much as 113 °F to damage and kill cancer cells with little/zero harm to the normal tissue

  • Immunotherapy - uses drugs to help the immune system fight cancer cells

  • Photodynamic therapy - uses a light-activated drug to kill cancer/other abnormal cells

  • Radiation therapy - uses high doses of radiation to kill cancer

  • Stem cell transplant - procedures that allow the restoration of stem cells in patients who have had theirs destroyed by radiation therapy or chemotherapy

  • Surgery - majority of the cancer’s tumor is physically removed from body

  • Targeted therapy - targets the changes in cancer cells that help them grow, spread, and divide 

– Prevention – 

Although it’s not possible to guarantee cancer prevention, it is possible to reduce your risk of getting cancer by maintaining a healthy lifestyle and staying aware. This can include:

  • Avoiding tobacco

  • Limiting alcohol consumption

  • Exercising regularly

  • Keeping a healthy diet and weight

  • Protecting your skin


Making sure to read the ingredients labels of products is also crucial as it’s legal for companies to use ingredients that are linked to cancer, endocrine disruption, as well as reproductive harm in products such as food packaging, cosmetics, personal care products, and cleaning products. Knowing which ingredients to look out for is a must

Finally, make sure to always wash your hands, and choose fresh, organic, and hormone-free foods to avoid exposure to added hormones, pesticides, and other possible toxic chemicals that are contained in packaged foods.

Works Cited

“The 10 Commandments of Cancer Prevention - Harvard Health Publishing - Harvard.” Harvard Health, 1 October 2019, Accessed 11 June 2023.

“Cancer Classification.” SEER Training, Accessed 11 June 2023.

“Cancer signs you shouldn’t ignore.” Shine365, 10 March 2016,

“Cancer - Symptoms and causes.” Mayo Clinic, Accessed 11 June 2023.

“Chronic Disease Fact Sheet: Cancer | CDC.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 7 June 2022, Accessed 11 June 2023.

“How Common is Cancer - Personalized Hemonc.” Personalized Hematology-Oncology of Wake Forest, 11 February 2022, Accessed 11 June 2023.

“How does cancer do that? Sizing up cells and their shapes.” Cancer Treatment Centers of America, 20 February 2018, Accessed 11 June 2023.

“Pathologist's Corner – Dr. Cecilia Rosales on Skin Cancer.” SEPA Labs, Accessed 11 June 2023.

“17 Cancer Symptoms You Shouldn't Ignore | Patient Education.” UCSF Health, 2 December 2021, Accessed 11 June 2023.

“Signs and symptoms of cancer.” Cancer Research UK, 17 November 2022, Accessed 11 June 2023.

“Signs and symptoms of cancer.” Cancer Research UK, 17 November 2022, Accessed 11 June 2023.

“30 Minutes of Exercise A Day Can Keep Cancer at Bay.” CyteCare Cancer Hospitals

“Types of Cancer Treatment - NCI.” National Cancer Institute, Accessed 11 June 2023.

“What Is Cancer?” SEER Training, Accessed 11 June 2023.

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