Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Cancer 101

I thought that, as my project is looking at certain types of brain tumour, it might be a good idea to make a post about cancer. Many people know that cancer is an awful disease and many people have at least 1 important person in their life that has been affected by cancer. Personally, my best friend in primary school died from the results of leukaemia (cancer of the white blood cells) aged 12 and I know a number of other people who have been lucky enough to have survived their cancers. 

A great deal of effort has gone into cancer research, and treatments have come on leaps and bounds over the last 100 years. Some cancers now have a 95% cure rate! (testicular cancer), however this is a very small minority, and for many cases there is a very low chance of being rid of the cancer completely. I'll try to answer some of the most fundamental questions that people may have about cancer. 

This is an image of some prostate cancer cells- one of the most common male cancers. Image by Dr. Gopal Murti/Visuals Unlimited, Inc

What is Cancer?

Cancer is a disease that arises from within, it is the result of rogue cells that are no longer tied to the normal regulatory systems that we have in place (cancer research has helped us to discover the many vast and complicated systems necessary to keep the cells of our bodies in check) and grows and divides uncontrolled. This is due to genetic changes (mutations) inside the cells that cause them to "misbehave", there is often a great number of mutations involved in a great deal of biological processes. They often no longer die as they should (loss of apoptosis), they can create new blood supplies to support themselves (angiogenesis) and in some cases they can migrate away from the primary tumour (malignant tumours) to create even more secondary tumours in other parts of the body (metastasis). The tumours then cause chaos in the body and eventually kill whoever is unlucky enough to have the tumour. 

Can cancer be cured?

Yes and no. While more and more cancers are seeing an increase in survival rates, there are still a large number of cancers that are showing no improvements eg lung cancers, brain cancers, liver cancers etc, with still only around 10% surviving for 5 years or more in the worst cases. Unsurprisingly, breast cancer, testicular cancer and prostate cancer has seen the most dramatic improvements in survival in recent years, due to the massive increases in funding for and research focus on these cancers, however it is hoped that the advances in these cancers will help with other types of cancers later on. With improvements in surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy and upcoming treatments like immunotherapy and gene therapy, there is no reason to think that all cancers may one day be curable. 

The problem is though, that there are so many different types of cancer, it will take many more decades of hard research to find these cures, and they will need to be found independently. This does not mean that we can cure all breast cancers with one treatment and then all brain tumours with another, but that each different type of breast cancer (of which there are dozens and dozens) is its own unique disease, with its own profile of genetic mistakes, and its own best treatments. The problem is, that some breast cancers may end up being more genetically similar to a lung cancer than another breast cancer, which means that finding the best treatments for each instance is extremely difficult. 

So no, there won't be a silver bullet that can cure all cancers, but that doesn't mean that each cancer is not itself curable in its own way. 

This is an image of oligodendrocytoma cells- the type of brain cancer that I look at, the cells that appear to be 'fried eggs' are cancer cells, while the other cells are non-cancerous. Image from wikipedia.org

What can I do to prevent cancer?

Fortunately, a great number of cancer risk factors are entirely preventable, such as smoking, unhealthy diet, lack of exercise, air pollution etc. This means that you can do a lot to put your cancer risk as low as possible. However, there is still always a risk. This means it is important to give yourself a regular check for lumps and bumps, look out for other signs that something might not be right; and if there is, go to a doctor! Early diagnosis is key in every disease, not just cancer. However, catching cancer early does give you a particularly large increase in chances of survival if you catch it early. If you have a family history of a certain type of cancer (particularly breast and ovarian cancers) you may be at a higher risk of developing cancer. If this is the case, there are many screening opportunities for you, and these dramatically increase your chances of survival, again by catching it and treating it as early as possible. 

I'm in no doubt that I will do a number of other posts on this topic over time, but I think that information is key, and even a basic understanding of cancer is extremely important. 

here are some links to some sites that you might find interesting about cancer:

NHS introduction to cancer
Cancer wikipedia page
About cancer- Cancer Research UK
How cancer is treated- Cancer Research UK
Cancer treatments: present and future (2002)
History of Cancer
Documentary about the birth of cell culture and the "cancer virus"


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