Cancer is a complex disease. In fact, it is really many diseases with one thing in common— cancer cells have a communication problem.
To understand cancer cells, you need to first understand healthy cells and how they function. A cell is the basic, structural unit of all known living organisms. It’s the smallest unit of life that can replicate independently. Each cell contains DNA, a blueprint for how proteins are produced or suppressed in the body
Healthy cells stop growing when there are enough cells present. In the “cell cycle” damaged cells are repaired and old cells die and are replaced if appropriate. Your skin is a good example of this. New skin cells are produced in the bottom layers of your epidermis. Over time, they move to the top layers as old skin cells from the top-most layers of your epidermis, die and slough off. In fact, 30,000 to 40,000 old cells die and slough off each day! The skin you see now will be gone in about a month. This is the reason some people exfoliate their skin to get that “healthy glow.”
Mutations, inherited or caused by carcinogens (cancer-causing things in the environment such as tobacco or ultraviolet rays), can result in the abnormal production of proteins. Cancer cells ignore growth inhibitors. They also don’t listen to the surrounding cells that “tell them” to stop growing. They not only grow when they shouldn’t but they also go where they shouldn’t. This includes spreading to the blood stream, other organs, and the lymphatic system. This happens because cancer cells don’t have the adhesion molecules in them that makes them “stay put.”
What kind of cancer is it?
Often when cancer metastasizes, people think that the location the cancer is found in is the type of cancer the patient has. For example, if a breast cancer patient has a metastasis to her liver, someone might think she has breast cancer and now, liver cancer, too. Or if it spreads to the lungs, they might say she has breast and lung cancer. In fact, it is all breast cancer. The cells found in the liver or the lung are distinct breast cancer cells.
The origin of the cancer is unique, so pathologists can determine what type of cancer a patient has by looking at the cancer cells. When my husband Dan discovered he had lung cancer it was because lung cancer cells had metastasized to his lymphatic system and beyond. The biopsy found lung cancer cells in his lymph nodes.
Cancer cells look different than healthy cells.
While healthy cells are consistent in shape and color, cancer cells have a lot of variety in size and shape. Their nucleus is also larger and darker than that of a healthy cell, because of excess DNA.
Your body, the night club.
Cancer cells grow too quickly and divide before they are fully mature. Doctors call these immature cells “undifferentiated,” These cells divide before they become mature adult cells. By looking at how quickly or “early” these cells divide, doctors can tell how aggressive the cancer is.
Imagine your body is a night club. Lymphocytes are the bouncers, keeping out the riff-raff. They kick out damaged cells, keeping the place hopping. Cancer cells (immature things that they are) sneak past the bouncers by secreting a chemical that shuts the immune cells or lymphocytes (the bouncers) down as they come to remove the cancer cells from the party. Another tactic cancer cells use is hiding long enough to grow into a tumor.
Cancer cells don’t act the way they should. They don’t die when they should. They go wherever they please, despite the danger they present to the patient. Each type of cancer is unique. I describe them as juvenile delinquent zombies. By understanding what we are up against, we can better fight cancer when it presents itself.
Rapidly dividing cells
One thing to note is that because cancer cells divide rapidly, many of the traditional cancer treatments go after rapidly dividing cells, in general. Unfortunately, that includes killing off the healthy rapidly deciding cells which include those that form hair, skin, and nails. This is why with traditional chemotherapy patients often lose their hair.
Newer targeted treatments attempt to go after only those cells which have specific cancer mutations in them. This spares healthy cells. They aren’t without side effects, but they are a far more effective and tolerable treatment option for patients.
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In 2012 doctors diagnosed my husband, Dan, with stage IV lung cancer. Since then, our family has been learning what it means to face cancer. I’ve focused my writing and speaking on helping cancer patients and their families advocate for themselves and live life to the fullest, in spite of their illness. My goal is to help people face cancer with grace.
My book Facing Cancer as a Friend: How to Support Someone Who Has Cancer, is available on Amazon.com
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I also blog at Heather Erickson Author/Writer/Speaker