What is Cancer

What is cancer? This is the abnormal growth of cells out of normal proportion, leading to deleterious effect in the individual. Any cancer spreading to involve the bowels can cause abdominal pain!

picture of cancer cell

Cancer refers to a group of diseases which occurs when body cells starts to grow out of control. The cells lose their ability to divide in a controlled manner and choke out normal body cells.

Cancer was first described in the Egyptian papyri about 3000 years BC.

Cancer cells or tissues are noted to have long large blood vessels growing into and out of them like the claws of crabs; thus the word cancer which means crab in Greek was coined by Hippocrates of Cos, the father of medicine to describe these diseases.

Because the cells which have now turned cancer grow in such an uncontrolled rate, they use up nutrition several times the normal amount and thus starve normal body cells of vital supply… no wonder people grow lean when they have cancer.

They may also produce certain kinds of chemicals in unusual amount, causing different symptoms.

Tumour or cancer cells could be benign, meaning they do not grow rapidly and do not spread to other organs or part of the body, or malignant, meaning they could spread to other organs or parts of the body.

The English Surgeon, Stephen Paget described malignant tumours like seeds that could follow blood or lymph to any and all part of the body, but only grows in organs or part of the body that suits it, just like a seed would only grow in a soil that it finds okay for it.

This explains why some tumour spreads to certain part of the body, and not others, giving rise to various types of cancer affecting different organs in our body brought on largely by lifestyle choices, or genetic predispositions.

There are over 200 different types of cancers known to doctors and these could develop from blood cells, bone cells, muscle cells, fat cells, skin cells or the breast and other glands of the body.

What Is A Tumour

The word cancer and tumour are sometimes used interchangeably. Not all tumours are cancers. It is very important to understand this, if you must know what is cancer in some detail.

A tumour is defined as a cluster of abnormal cells. Those clusters of cells that are still held together by a covering of tissue, and do not grow to invade other part of the body are called benign tumours.

If a tumour becomes aggressive, grows rapidly out of the enveloping tissue covering, with a potential to spread to other parts of the body, it is then called a malignant tumour or cancer. So, cancers are a type of tumour - the aggressive form of tumour.

When such cell spread, they are said to have metastasize. The original tissue where they came from is called the primary tumour and the new tissue they have spread to is called the secondary tumour.

Causes of Cancer

What is cancer and what are the causes of cancer are very common frequently asked cancer questions.

Research has consistently shown that the causes of cancer can be divided into three groups:

  1. Genetic Predisposition
  2. Environmental Exposure
  3. Lifestyle Choices

We all can take steps to reduce the effect of any of the above factor on us and thus reduce our risk of developing cancer.

In fact, it has been shown that our life style alone accounts for up to 80 percent of why someone could develop cancer or not!

Genetic Causes of Cancer

The blue print of all cell functions, characteristics, division process, structure and behaviour and indeed all things about a cell is written down in clear precise instruction in a tiny molecule found in all living cells called the DNA.

These DNAs are packaged into chromosomes, and chromosomes with a group of cell instructions make up the genes we inherit.

When cells divides, they are in effect making copies of DNA. If an error develops during the copying process, and a vital cell function command is lost, the new cell formed becomes abnormal. This error may lead to our body producing a certain type of substance in too little or too much amount, or even failure to grow or grow too much.

If we inherit a propensity for certain cells types to loose control of their growth regulatory system, then we are very likely to come down with certain types of cancers.

That is why if we carry some abnormal genes copied wrongly from our parents or grand parents, we can be more prone to developing cancer. It is important to note that having a type of abnormal gene only increases the chance of cancer, but not an iron clad guarantee to develop cancer.

Common inherited genes and diseases that increases ones chance of developing cancer include:

  • APC Genes: Causing Familial Adenomatous Polyposis and a propensity to developing bowel cancer - more relevant to abdominal pain and what is cancer
  • BRCA1 and BRCA2 Genes: Predisposes women with this gene to up to 80 percent chances of developing breast cancer
  • LMTK2 Genes and Abnormalities of Chromosomes 3, 6, 7, 10, 11, 19 and X: These increases the risk of prostate cancer in men
  • von Hippel-Lindau syndrome: In this condition, there is very high tendency to develop cancer of the brain, spinal cord, kidney and adrenal gland due to an inherited genetic disorder
  • Down's Syndrome: Increases the risk for certain types of cancers
  • Fanconi's Anaemia: Also increases chances of developing certain cancers
  • Hand Schuller Christian Syndrome: Also known as Langerhan's cell histiocytosis, it is associated with a lethal form of blood cancer in children
  • POEMS Syndrome: Peripheral neuropathy, organomegally, endocrinopathy, monoclonal paraproteinaemia, and skin lesions. This is associated with vascular tumours

  • Li Fraumeni Syndrome: Families have increased risk of developing many cancers at very early age. What is cancer to these families? It means their whole world.

Even if you inherit any of these or the other genetic causes of cancer, by moderating your environmental and lifestyle choices, you can prevent or limit the effect of cancer on you.

Genetic screening tests for cancers exist. Ask your doctor.

Environmental Causes of Cancer

The environment we grow up in, live in and work and play in have a big part in determining our susceptibility to developing cancer. The following are particularly important and must be well understood if you must understand what is cancer. They include exposure to :

  • Virus Infections, e.g Epstein Barr virus implicated in may cancers, hepatitis virus leads to liver cancer, HIV virus predisposes to brain cancers and human papilloma virus transmitted through sexual intercourse is involved in the development of cervical cancer to mention a few

  • Tar (scrotal cancers), Coal, Asbestosis, petroleum products, afla toxin in peanuts (ground nuts) and ogbono seeds leading to liver cancers especially in developing countries,

  • Radiations: Prolonged exposure to sunlight in the light skinned leads to deadly melanomas, or radiation from to much X-ray exposure leads to blood cancers and many other kinds of cancers

  • Certain medications like cyclosporin, hormones like combined oral contraceptive pills (the "pill") has been shown to increase risk of breast cancer, and the HRT increases risk of developing womb cancer

Lifestyle Causes of Cancer

Lifestyle choices constitutes the biggest causes of cancer in all societies. Knowing what is cancer really means one is willing to change his or her lifestyle to reduce the risk of developing cancer. The following are particularly important lifestyle factors causing cancer.

  1. Tobacco Smoking: This is the most important lifestyle factor causing various cancers, especially lung cancer, which is by far the leading cause of cancer death worldwide
  2. Excessive Alcohol Consumption: Implicated in liver cancer, as well as stomach cancer
  3. Consumption of Food rich in too much fat, salt, as well as smoked food. This explains why stomach cancer is very high amongst the Chinese and Japanese who consume loads of smoked food
  4. Sedentary Lifestyle leading to Obesity has been linked with causing so many cancers in both men and women, ranging from bowel cancer, rectal cancer, breast cancer to prostate cancer. There is a very strong connection between

    obesity and cancers!

The power to reduce our risk of cancer certainly lies in our hands. It means we really have to take in knowledge of what is cancer and what do as learn. But how can cancer be diagnosed, and treated?

If you are 50 years or more, suffers with long abdominal pain, losing weight, appetite poor, and passing loose stools or recently become constipated, it is important to check that you do not have bowel cancer. Even more so if you are also passing blood in your stool.

Tests for Cancer

Tests done to help detect or diagnose cancer includes:

  1. Blood Tests: ranging from non specific test like full blood count, electrolyte and urea, creatinine, to more specialised test like CEA (carcino-enbyonic antigen test raised in breast cancer, bowel cancer, and lung cancer as well as in cancer of the pancrease), Ca 125 (raised in ovarian cancer), Ca 19-9 (raised in bowel cancer), Ca 15-3 (raised also in breast cancer), PSA (Prostatic Specific Antigen raised in prostate cancer, and AFP (alfa feto protein, raised in liver cancer

  2. Urine, Stool, Sputum and Lung Washings Tests: Faecal occult blood Test (FOBT) is done in bowel cancer, urine for cytology done in bladder cancer, sputum and lung washings done in lung cancer

  3. X-rays: Chest X-ray for lung cancers, and secondary tumours to the chest, bone x-xays for bone cancers, e.t.c.

  4. Ultra Sound Scans, CT Scans, MRI, Bone Scans

  5. Endoscopy and other Camera Tests

  6. Biopsy and Histology

Treatments for Cancer

Many more cancers are now treatable and totally cured, while some others, there are no known treatment modality for them.

Treatment for cancers will depend largely on the type of cancer involved.

Treatment for cancer include the use of :

  1. Chemotherapy

  2. Radiotherapy

  3. Immunotherapy

  4. Surgery

  5. Hormones

The treatment success and prognosis for many cancers would depend on the stage of advancement of the cancer. That is why it is important to know what is cancer, modify lifestyle choices to reduce risk of developing this illness, look out for symptoms, go for screening if one suspects that he or she might be predisposed, and if diagnosed with one, early treatment instituted to conquer cancer.

If you are very keen in learning more on what is cancer, see

Other resources to help under stand what is cancer from Amazon include

To learn more on what is cancer, please see the sections on types of cancer and how these various cancers can lead to abdominal pain under certain conditions. What is Cancer? Now You know what it is and how to overcome it.