Cancer /ˈkænsər/ (medical term: malignant neoplasm) is a class of diseases in which a cell, or a group of cells display uncontrolled growth (division beyond the normal limits), invasion (intrusion on and destruction of adjacent tissues), and sometimes metastasis (spread to other locations in the body via lymph or blood). These three malignant properties of cancers differentiate them from benign tumors, which are self-limited, and do not invade or metastasize. Most cancers form a tumor but some, like leukemia, do not. The branch of medicine concerned with the study, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of cancer is oncology.

Cancer affects people at all ages with the risk for most types increasing with age.[1] It caused about 13% of all human deaths in 2007[2] (7.6 million).[3] Cancers are primarily an environmental disease with 90-95% of cases due to lifestyle and environmental factors and 5-10% due to genetics.[4] Common environmental factors leading to cancer death include: tobacco (25-30%) , diet and obesity (30-35%), infections (15-20%), radiation, stress, physical activity, environmental pollutants.[4] These environmental factors cause abnormalities in the genetic material of cells.[5]

Genetic abnormalities found in cancer typically affect two general classes of genes. Cancer-promoting oncogenes are typically activated in cancer cells, giving those cells new properties, such as hyperactive growth and division, protection against programmed cell death, loss of respect for normal tissue boundaries, and the ability to become established in diverse tissue environments. Tumor suppressor genes are then inactivated in cancer cells, resulting in the loss of normal functions in those cells, such as accurate DNA replication, control over the cell cycle, orientation and adhesion within tissues, and interaction with protective cells of the immune system.

Definitive diagnosis requires the histologic examination of a biopsy specimen, although the initial indication of malignancy can be symptomatic or radiographic imaging abnormalities. Most cancers can be treated and some forced into remission, depending on the specific type, location, and stage. Once diagnosed, cancer is usually treated with a combination of surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. As research develops, treatments are becoming more specific for different varieties of cancer. There has been significant progress in the development of targeted therapy drugs that act specifically on detectable molecular abnormalities in certain tumors, and which minimize damage to normal cells. The prognosis of cancer patients is most influenced by the type of cancer, as well as the stage, or extent of the disease. In addition, histologic grading and the presence of specific molecular markers can also be useful in establishing prognosis, as well as in determining individual treatments.

Classification and external resources

A coronal CT scan showing malignant cancer of the lung sac.
Legend: → tumor ←, ★ central pleural effusion, 1&3 lungs, 2 spine, 4 ribs, 5 aorta, 6 spleen, 7&8 kidneys, 9 liver.
DiseasesDB 28843
MedlinePlus 001289
MeSH D009369


Cancers are classified by the type of cell that resembles the tumor and, therefore, the tissue presumed to be the origin of the tumor. These are the histology and the location, respectively. Examples of general categories include:

  • Carcinoma: Malignant tumors derived from epithelial cells. This group represents the most common cancers, including the common forms of breast, prostate, lung and colon cancer.
  • Sarcoma: Malignant tumors derived from connective tissue, or mesenchymal cells.
  • Lymphoma and leukemia: Malignancies derived from hematopoietic (blood-forming) cells
  • Germ cell tumor: Tumors derived from totipotent cells. In adults most often found in the testicle and ovary; in fetuses, babies, and young children most often found on the body midline, particularly at the tip of the tailbone; in horses most often found at the poll (base of the skull).
  • Blastic tumor or blastoma: A tumor (usually malignant) which resembles an immature or embryonic tissue. Many of these tumors are most common in children.

Malignant tumors (cancers) are usually named using -carcinoma, -sarcoma or -blastoma as a suffix, with the Latin or Greek word for the organ of origin as the root. For instance, a cancer of the liver is called hepatocarcinoma; a cancer of the fat cells is called liposarcoma. For common cancers, the English organ name is used. For instance, the most common type of breast cancer is called ductal carcinoma of the breast or mammary ductal carcinoma. Here, the adjective ductal refers to the appearance of the cancer under the microscope, resembling normal breast ducts.

Benign tumors (which are not cancers) are named using -oma as a suffix with the organ name as the root. For instance, a benign tumor of the smooth muscle of the uterus is called leiomyoma (the common name of this frequent tumor is fibroid). Unfortunately, some cancers also use the -oma suffix, examples being melanoma and seminoma


Roughly, cancer symptoms can be divided into three groups:

Every symptom in the above list can be caused by a variety of conditions (a list of which is referred to as the differential diagnosis). Cancer may be a common or uncommon cause of each item.

Symptoms of cancer metastasis depend on the location of the tumor.


Cancers are primarily an environmental disease with 90-95% of cases due to lifestyle and environmental factors and 5-10% due to genetics.[4] Common environmental factors that lead to cancer death include: tobacco (25-30%) , diet and obesity (30-35%), infections (15-20%), radiation, stress, lack of physical activity, environmental pollutants.[4] The virtual absence of cancerous malignancies in ancient human remains suggests that cancer is mainly a man-made disease of the Industrial Age caused by environmental changes and the modern diet.[6]


The incidence of lung cancer is highly correlated with smoking. Source:NIH.

Cancer pathogenesis is traceable back to DNA mutations that impact cell growth and metastasis. Substances that cause DNA mutations are known as mutagens, and mutagens that cause cancers are known as carcinogens. Particular substances have been linked to specific types of cancer. Tobacco smoking is associated with many forms of cancer,[7] and causes 90% of lung cancer.[8] Prolonged exposure to asbestos fibers is associated with mesothelioma.[9][10]

Many mutagens are also carcinogens, but some carcinogens are not mutagens. Alcohol is an example of a chemical carcinogen that is not a mutagen.[11] Such chemicals may promote cancers through stimulating the rate of cell division. Faster rates of replication leaves less time for repair enzymes to repair damaged DNA during DNA replication, increasing the likelihood of a mutation.

Decades of research has demonstrated the link between tobacco use and cancer in the lung, larynx, head, neck, stomach, bladder, kidney, oesophagus and pancreas.[12] Tobacco smoke contains over fifty known carcinogens, including nitrosamines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.[13] Tobacco is responsible for about one in three of all cancer deaths in the developed world,[7] and about one in five worldwide.[13] Indeed, lung cancer death rates in the United States have mirrored smoking patterns, with increases in smoking followed by dramatic increases in lung cancer death rates and, more recently[when?], decreases in smoking followed by decreases in lung cancer death rates in men. However, the numbers of smokers worldwide is still rising, leading to what some organizations have described as the tobacco epidemic.[14]

Cancer related to ones occupation is believed to represent between 2-20% of all cases.[15]

Ionizing radiation

Sources of ionizing radiation, such as radon gas, can cause cancer. Prolonged exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun can lead to melanoma and other skin malignancies.[16] It is estimated that 2% of future cancers will be due to current CT scans.[17]

Non-ionizing radio frequency radiation from mobile phones and other similar RF sources has also been proposed as a cause of cancer, but there is currently little established evidence of such a link.[18]


Some cancers can be caused by infection.[19] This is especially true in animals such as birds, but also in humans, with viruses responsible for up to 20% of human cancers worldwide.[20] These include human papillomavirus (cervical carcinoma), human polyomaviruses (mesothelioma, brain tumors), Epstein-Barr virus (B-cell lymphoproliferative disease and nasopharyngeal carcinoma), Kaposi's sarcoma herpesvirus (Kaposi's Sarcoma and primary effusion lymphomas), hepatitis B and hepatitis C viruses (hepatocellular carcinoma), Human T-cell leukemia virus-1 (T-cell leukemias), and Helicobacter pylori (gastric carcinoma).[20]

Experimental and epidemiological data imply a causative role for viruses and they appear to be the second most important risk factor for cancer development in humans, exceeded only by tobacco usage.[21] The mode of virally induced tumors can be divided into two, acutely transforming or slowly transforming. In acutely transforming viruses, the virus carries an overactive oncogene called viral-oncogene (v-onc), and the infected cell is transformed as soon as v-onc is expressed. In contrast, in slowly transforming viruses, the virus genome is inserted near a proto-oncogene in the host genome. The viral promoter or other transcription regulation elements then cause overexpression of that proto-oncogene. This induces uncontrolled cell division. Because the site of insertion is not specific to proto-oncogenes and the chance of insertion near any proto-oncogene is low, slowly transforming viruses will cause tumors much longer after infection than the acutely transforming viruses.

Hepatitis viruses, including hepatitis B and hepatitis C, can induce a chronic viral infection that leads to liver cancer in 0.47% of hepatitis B patients per year (especially in Asia, less so in North America), and in 1.4% of hepatitis C carriers per year. Liver cirrhosis, whether from chronic viral hepatitis infection or alcoholism, is associated with the development of liver cancer, and the combination of cirrhosis and viral hepatitis presents the highest risk of liver cancer development. Worldwide, liver cancer is one of the most common, and most deadly, cancers due to a huge burden of viral hepatitis transmission and disease.

Advances in cancer research have made a vaccine designed to prevent cancer available. In 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a human papilloma virus vaccine, called Gardasil. The vaccine protects against four HPV types, which together cause 70% of cervical cancers and 90% of genital warts. In March 2007, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) officially recommended that females aged 11–12 receive the vaccine, and indicated that females as young as age 9 and as old as age 26 are also candidates for immunization.

In addition to viruses, researchers have noted a connection between bacteria and certain cancers. The most prominent example is the link between chronic infection of the wall of the stomach with Helicobacter pylori and gastric cancer.[22][23] Although only a minority of those infected with Helicobacter go on to develop cancer, since this pathogen is quite common it is probably responsible for most of these cancers.[24]

HIV is associated with a number of malignancies, including Kaposi's sarcoma, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and HPV-associated malignancies such as anal cancer and cervical cancer. AIDS-defining illnesses have long included these diagnoses. The increased incidence of malignancies in HIV patients points to the breakdown of immune surveillance as a possible etiology of cancer.[25] Certain other immune deficiency states (e.g. common variable immunodeficiency and IgA deficiency) are also associated with increased risk of malignancy.[26]


Most forms of cancer are sporadic, meaning that there is no inherited cause of the cancer. There are, however, a number of recognised syndromes where there is an inherited predisposition to cancer, often due to a defect in a gene that protects against tumor formation. Famous examples are:

Other causes

Excepting the rare transmissions that occur with pregnancies and only a marginal few organ donors, cancer is generally not a transmissible disease. The main reason for this is tissue graft rejection caused by MHC incompatibility.[27] In humans and other vertebrates, the immune system uses MHC antigens to differentiate between "self" and "non-self" cells because these antigens are different from person to person. When non-self antigens are encountered, the immune system reacts against the appropriate cell. Such reactions may protect against tumour cell engraftment by eliminating implanted cells. In the United States, approximately 3,500 pregnant women have a malignancy annually, and transplacental transmission of acute leukaemia, lymphoma, melanoma and carcinoma from mother to fetus has been observed.[27] The development of donor-derived tumors from organ transplants is exceedingly rare. The main cause of organ transplant associated tumors seems to be malignant melanoma, that was undetected at the time of organ harvest.[28] though other cases exist[29] In fact, cancer from one organism will usually grow in another organism of that species, as long as they share the same histocompatibility genes,[30] proven using mice; however this would never happen in a real-world setting except as described above.

In non-humans, a few types of transmissible cancer have been described, wherein the cancer spreads between animals by transmission of the tumor cells themselves. This phenomenon is seen in dogs with Sticker's sarcoma, also known as canine transmissible venereal tumor,[31] as well as Devil facial tumour disease in Tasmanian devils.


Cancers are caused by a series of mutations. Each mutation alters the behavior of the cell somewhat.

Cancer is fundamentally a disease of regulation of tissue growth. In order for a normal cell to transform into a cancer cell, genes which regulate cell growth and differentiation must be altered.[32] Genetic changes can occur at many levels, from gain or loss of entire chromosomes to a mutation affecting a single DNA nucleotide. There are two broad categories of genes which are affected by these changes. Oncogenes may be normal genes which are expressed at inappropriately high levels, or altered genes which have novel properties. In either case, expression of these genes promotes the malignant phenotype of cancer cells. Tumor suppressor genes are genes which inhibit cell division, survival, or other properties of cancer cells. Tumor suppressor genes are often disabled by cancer-promoting genetic changes. Typically, changes in many genes are required to transform a normal cell into a cancer cell.[33]

There is a diverse classification scheme for the various genomic changes which may contribute to the generation of cancer cells. Most of these changes are mutations, or changes in the nucleotide sequence of genomic DNA. Aneuploidy, the presence of an abnormal number of chromosomes, is one genomic change which is not a mutation, and may involve either gain or loss of one or more chromosomes through errors in mitosis.

Large-scale mutations involve the deletion or gain of a portion of a chromosome. Genomic amplification occurs when a cell gains many copies (often 20 or more) of a small chromosomal locus, usually containing one or more oncogenes and adjacent genetic material. Translocation occurs when two separate chromosomal regions become abnormally fused, often at a characteristic location. A well-known example of this is the Philadelphia chromosome, or translocation of chromosomes 9 and 22, which occurs in chronic myelogenous leukemia, and results in production of the BCR-abl fusion protein, an oncogenic tyrosine kinase.

Small-scale mutations include point mutations, deletions, and insertions, which may occur in the promoter of a gene and affect its expression, or may occur in the gene's coding sequence and alter the function or stability of its protein product. Disruption of a single gene may also result from integration of genomic material from a DNA virus or retrovirus, and such an event may also result in the expression of viral oncogenes in the affected cell and its descendants.

Anything which replicates (living cells) will probabilistically suffer from errors (mutations). Unless error correction and prevention is properly carried out, the errors will survive, and might be passed along to daughter cells. Normally, the body safeguards against cancer via numerous methods, such as: apoptosis, helper molecules (some DNA polymerases), possibly senescence, etc. However these error-correction methods often fail in small ways, especially in environments that make errors more likely to arise and propagate. For example, such environments can include the presence of disruptive substances called carcinogens, or periodic injury (physical, heat, etc.), or environments that cells did not evolve to withstand, such as hypoxia[34] (see subsections). Cancer is thus a progressive disease, and these progressive errors slowly accumulate until a cell begins to act contrary to its function in the organism.

The errors which cause cancer are often self-amplifying, eventually compounding at an exponential rate. For example:

  • A mutation in the error-correcting machinery of a cell might cause that cell and its children to accumulate errors more rapidly
  • A mutation in signaling (endocrine) machinery of the cell can send error-causing signals to nearby cells
  • A mutation might cause cells to become neoplastic, causing them to migrate and disrupt more healthy cells
  • A mutation may cause the cell to become immortal (see telomeres), causing them to disrupt healthy cells forever

Thus cancer often explodes in something akin to a chain reaction caused by a few errors, which compound into more severe errors. Errors which produce more errors are effectively the root cause of cancer, and also the reason that cancer is so hard to treat: even if there were 10,000,000,000 cancerous cells and one killed all but 10 of those cells, those cells (and other error-prone precancerous cells) could still self-replicate or send error-causing signals to other cells, starting the process over again. This rebellion-like scenario is an undesirable survival of the fittest, where the driving forces of evolution work against the body's design and enforcement of order. In fact, once cancer has begun to develop, this same force continues to drive the progression of cancer towards more invasive stages, and is called clonal evolution.[35]

Research about cancer causes often falls into the following categories:

  • Agents (e.g. viruses) and events (e.g. mutations) which cause or facilitate genetic changes in cells destined to become cancer.
  • The precise nature of the genetic damage, and the genes which are affected by it.
  • The consequences of those genetic changes on the biology of the cell, both in generating the defining properties of a cancer cell, and in facilitating additional genetic events which lead to further progression of the cancer.


Cancer prevention is defined as active measures to decrease the incidence of cancer.[36] Greater than 30% of cancer is preventable via avoiding risk factors including: tobacco, overweight or obesity, low fruit and vegetable intake, physical inactivity, alcohol, sexually transmitted infection, air pollution.[37] This can be accomplished by avoiding carcinogens or altering their metabolism, pursuing a lifestyle or diet that modifies cancer-causing factors and/or medical intervention (chemoprevention, treatment of pre-malignant lesions). The epidemiological concept of "prevention" is usually defined as either primary prevention, for people who have not been diagnosed with a particular disease, or secondary prevention, aimed at reducing recurrence or complications of a previously diagnosed illness.

But the EPIC study published in 2010, tracking the eating habits of 478,000 Europeans suggested that consuming lots of fruits and vegetables has little if any effect on preventing cancer.[38]


The vast majority of cancer risk factors are environmental or lifestyle-related, leading to the claim that cancer is a largely preventable disease.[39] Examples of modifiable cancer risk factors include alcohol consumption (associated with increased risk of oral, esophageal, breast, and other cancers), smoking (80% of women with lung cancer have smoked in the past, and 90% of men[40]), physical inactivity (associated with increased risk of colon, breast, and possibly other cancers), and being overweight / obese (associated with colon, breast, endometrial, and possibly other cancers). Based on epidemiologic evidence, it is now thought that avoiding excessive alcohol consumption may contribute to reductions in risk of certain cancers; however, compared with tobacco exposure, the magnitude of effect is modest or small and the strength of evidence is often weaker. Other lifestyle and environmental factors known to affect cancer risk (either beneficially or detrimentally) include certain sexually transmitted diseases (such as those conveyed by the human papillomavirus), the use of exogenous hormones, exposure to ionizing radiation and ultraviolet radiation from the sun or from tanning beds, and certain occupational and chemical exposures.

Every year, at least 200,000 people die worldwide from cancer related to their workplace.[41] Millions of workers run the risk of developing cancers such as lung cancer and mesothelioma from inhaling asbestos fibers and tobacco smoke, or leukemia from exposure to benzene at their workplaces.[41] Currently, most cancer deaths caused by occupational risk factors occur in the developed world.[41] It is estimated that approximately 20,000 cancer deaths and 40,000 new cases of cancer each year in the U.S. are attributable to occupation.[42]


The consensus on diet and cancer is that obesity increases the risk of developing cancer. Particular dietary practices often explain differences in cancer incidence in different countries (e.g. gastric cancer is more common in Japan, while colon cancer is more common in the United States. In this example the preceding consideration of Haplogroups are excluded). Studies have shown that immigrants develop the risk of their new country, often within one generation, suggesting a substantial link between diet and cancer.[43] Whether reducing obesity in a population also reduces cancer incidence is unknown.

Despite frequent reports of particular substances (including foods) having a beneficial or detrimental effect on cancer risk, few of these have an established link to cancer. These reports are often based on studies in cultured cell media or animals. Public health recommendations cannot be made based on these studies until they have been validated in an observational (or occasionally a prospective interventional) trial in humans.

Proposed dietary interventions for primary cancer risk reduction generally gain support from epidemiological association studies. Examples of such studies include reports that reduced meat consumption is associated with decreased risk of colon cancer,[44] and reports that consumption of coffee is associated with a reduced risk of liver cancer.[45] Studies have linked consumption of grilled meat to an increased risk of stomach cancer,[46] colon cancer,[47] breast cancer,[48] and pancreatic cancer,[49] a phenomenon which could be due to the presence of carcinogens such as benzopyrene in foods cooked at high temperatures.

A 2005 secondary prevention study showed that consumption of a plant-based diet and lifestyle changes resulted in a reduction in cancer markers in a group of men with prostate cancer who were using no conventional treatments at the time.[50] These results were amplified by a 2006 study. Over 2,400 women were studied, half randomly assigned to a normal diet, the other half assigned to a diet containing less than 20% calories from fat. The women on the low fat diet were found to have a markedly lower risk of breast cancer recurrence, in the interim report of December, 2006.[51]

Recent[when?] studies have also demonstrated potential links between some forms of cancer and high consumption of refined sugars and other simple carbohydrates.[52][53][54][55][56] Although the degree of correlation and the degree of causality is still debated,[57][58][59] some organizations have in fact begun to recommend reducing intake of refined sugars and starches as part of their cancer prevention regimens.[60][61][62]

In November 2007, the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), in conjunction with the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF), published Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity and the Prevention of Cancer: a Global Perspective, "the most current and comprehensive analysis of the literature on diet, physical activity and cancer".[63] The WCRF/AICR Expert Report lists 10 recommendations that people can follow to help reduce their risk of developing cancer, including the following dietary guidelines: (1) reducing intake of foods and drinks that promote weight gain, namely energy-dense foods and sugary drinks, (2) eating mostly foods of plant origin, (3) limiting intake of red meat and avoiding processed meat, (4) limiting consumption of alcoholic beverages, and (5) reducing intake of salt and avoiding mouldy cereals (grains) or pulses (legumes).[64][65]

Some mushrooms offer an anti-cancer effect, which is thought to be linked to their ability to up-regulate the immune system. Some mushrooms known for this effect include, Reishi,[66][67] Agaricus blazei,[68] Maitake,[69] and Trametes versicolor[70]. Research suggests the compounds in medicinal mushrooms most responsible for up-regulating the immune system and providing an anti-cancer effect, are a diverse collection of polysaccharide compounds, particularly beta-glucans. Beta-glucans are known as "biological response modifiers", and their ability to activate the immune system is well documented. Specifically, beta-glucans stimulate the innate branch of the immune system. Research has shown beta-glucans have the ability to stimulate macrophage, NK cells, T cells, and immune system cytokines. The mechanisms in which beta-glucans stimulate the immune system is only partially understood. One mechanism in which beta-glucans are able to activate the immune system, is by interacting with the Macrophage-1 antigen (CD18) receptor on immune cells.[71]


As of 2010 vitamins have not been found to be effective at preventing cancer.[72] While low levels of vitamin D is correlated with increased cancer risk.[73][74] Whether this relationship is causal and vitamin D supplementation is protective is yet to be determined.[75] Beta-carotene supplementation has been found to increase slightly, but not significantly risks of lung cancer.[76] Folic acid supplementation has not been found effective in preventing colon cancer and may increase colon polyps.[77]


The concept that medications could be used to prevent cancer is an attractive one, and many high-quality clinical trials support the use of such chemoprevention in defined circumstances.

Daily use of tamoxifen, a selective estrogen receptor modulator (SERM), typically for 5 years, has been demonstrated to reduce the risk of developing breast cancer in high-risk women by about 50%. A recent[when?] study reported that the selective estrogen receptor modulator raloxifene has similar benefits to tamoxifen in preventing breast cancer in high-risk women, with a more favorable side effect profile.[78]

Raloxifene is a SERM like tamoxifen; it has been shown (in the STAR trial) to reduce the risk of breast cancer in high-risk women equally as well as tamoxifen. In this trial, which studied almost 20,000 women, raloxifene had fewer side effects than tamoxifen, though it did permit more DCIS to form.[78]

Finasteride, a 5-alpha-reductase inhibitor, has been shown to lower the risk of prostate cancer, though it seems to mostly prevent low-grade tumors.[79] The effect of COX-2 inhibitors such as rofecoxib and celecoxib upon the risk of colon polyps have been studied in familial adenomatous polyposis patients[80] and in the general population.[81][82] In both groups, there were significant reductions in colon polyp incidence, but this came at the price of increased cardiovascular toxicity.


Genetic testing for high-risk individuals is already available for certain cancer-related genetic mutations. Carriers of genetic mutations that increase risk for cancer incidence can undergo enhanced surveillance, chemoprevention, or risk-reducing surgery. Early identification of inherited genetic risk for cancer, along with cancer-preventing interventions such as surgery or enhanced surveillance, can be lifesaving for high-risk individuals.

Gene Cancer types Availability
BRCA1, BRCA2 Breast, ovarian, pancreatic Commercially available for clinical specimens
MLH1, MSH2, MSH6, PMS1, PMS2 Colon, uterine, small bowel, stomach, urinary tract Commercially available for clinical specimens


Prophylactic vaccines have been developed to prevent infection by oncogenic infectious agents such as viruses, and therapeutic vaccines are in development to stimulate an immune response against cancer-specific epitopes.[83]

As reported above, a preventive human papillomavirus vaccine exists that targets certain sexually transmitted strains of human papillomavirus that are associated with the development of cervical cancer and genital warts. The only two HPV vaccines on the market as of October 2007 are Gardasil and Cervarix.[83] There is also a hepatitis B vaccine, which prevents infection with the hepatitis B virus, an infectious agent that can cause liver cancer.[83] A canine melanoma vaccine has also been developed.[84][85]


Cancer screening is an attempt to detect unsuspected cancers in an asymptomatic population. Screening tests suitable for large numbers of healthy people must be relatively affordable, safe, noninvasive procedures with acceptably low rates of false positive results. If signs of cancer are detected, more definitive and invasive follow up tests are performed to confirm the diagnosis.

Screening for cancer can lead to earlier diagnosis in specific cases. Early diagnosis may lead to extended life, but may also falsely prolong the lead time to death through lead time bias or length time bias.

A number of different screening tests have been developed for different malignancies. Breast cancer screening can be done by breast self-examination, though this approach was discredited by a 2005 study in over 300,000 Chinese women. Screening for breast cancer with mammograms has been shown to reduce the average stage of diagnosis of breast cancer in a population. Stage of diagnosis in a country has been shown to decrease within ten years of introduction of mammographic screening programs. Colorectal cancer can be detected through fecal occult blood testing and colonoscopy, which reduces both colon cancer incidence and mortality, presumably through the detection and removal of pre-malignant polyps. Similarly, cervical cytology testing (using the Pap smear) leads to the identification and excision of precancerous lesions. Over time, such testing has been followed by a dramatic reduction of cervical cancer incidence and mortality. Testicular self-examination is recommended for men beginning at the age of 15 years to detect testicular cancer. Prostate cancer can be screened using a digital rectal exam along with prostate specific antigen (PSA) blood testing, though some authorities (such as the US Preventive Services Task Force) recommend against routinely screening all men.

Screening for cancer is controversial in cases when it is not yet known if the test actually saves lives. The controversy arises when it is not clear if the benefits of screening outweigh the risks of follow-up diagnostic tests and cancer treatments. For example: when screening for prostate cancer, the PSA test may detect small cancers that would never become life threatening, but once detected will lead to treatment. This situation, called overdiagnosis, puts men at risk for complications from unnecessary treatment such as surgery or radiation. Follow up procedures used to diagnose prostate cancer (prostate biopsy) may cause side effects, including bleeding and infection. Prostate cancer treatment may cause incontinence (inability to control urine flow) and erectile dysfunction (erections inadequate for intercourse). Similarly, for breast cancer, there have recently[when?] been criticisms that breast screening programs in some countries cause more problems than they solve. This is because screening of women in the general population will result in a large number of women with false positive results which require extensive follow-up investigations to exclude cancer, leading to having a high number-to-treat (or number-to-screen) to prevent or catch a single case of breast cancer early.

Cervical cancer screening via the Pap smear has the best cost-benefit profile of all the forms of cancer screening from a public health perspective as, largely caused by a virus, it has clear risk factors (sexual contact), and the natural progression of cervical cancer is that it normally spreads slowly over a number of years therefore giving more time for the screening program to catch it early. Moreover, the test is easy to perform and relatively cheap.

For these reasons, it is important that the benefits and risks of diagnostic procedures and treatment be taken into account when considering whether to undertake cancer screening.

Use of medical imaging to search for cancer in people without clear symptoms is similarly marred with problems. There is a significant risk of detection of what has been recently[when?] called an incidentaloma - a benign lesion that may be interpreted as a malignancy and be subjected to potentially dangerous investigations. Recent[when?] studies of CT scan-based screening for lung cancer in smokers have had equivocal results, and systematic screening is not recommended as of July 2007. Randomized clinical trials of plain-film chest X-rays to screen for lung cancer in smokers have shown no benefit for this approach.

Canine cancer detection has shown promise, but is still in the early stages of research.


Chest x-ray showing lung cancer in the left lung.

Most cancers are initially recognized either because signs or symptoms appear or through screening. Neither of these lead to a definitive diagnosis, which usually requires the opinion of a pathologist, a type of physician (medical doctor) who specializes in the diagnosis of cancer and other diseases. People with suspected cancer are investigated with medical tests. These commonly include blood tests, X-rays, CT scans and endoscopy.


A cancer may be suspected for a variety of reasons, but the definitive diagnosis of most malignancies must be confirmed by histological examination of the cancerous cells by a pathologist. Tissue can be obtained from a biopsy or surgery. Many biopsies (such as those of the skin, breast or liver) can be done in a doctor's office. Biopsies of other organs are performed under anesthesia and require surgery in an operating room.

The tissue diagnosis given by the pathologist indicates the type of cell that is proliferating, its histological grade, genetic abnormalities, and other features of the tumor. Together, this information is useful to evaluate the prognosis of the patient and to choose the best treatment. Cytogenetics and immunohistochemistry are other types of testing that the pathologist may perform on the tissue specimen. These tests may provide information about the molecular changes (such as mutations, fusion genes, and numerical chromosome changes) that has happened in the cancer cells, and may thus also indicate the future behavior of the cancer (prognosis) and best treatment.


Many management options for cancer exist including: chemotherapy, radiation therapy, surgery, immunotherapy, monoclonal antibody therapy and other methods. Which are used depends upon the location and grade of the tumor and the stage of the disease, as well as the general state of a person's health. Experimental cancer treatments are also under development.

Complete removal of the cancer without damage to the rest of the body is the goal of treatment. Sometimes this can be accomplished by surgery, but the propensity of cancers to invade adjacent tissue or to spread to distant sites by microscopic metastasis often limits its effectiveness. Surgery often required the removal of a wide surgical margin or a free margin. The width of the free margin depends on the type of the cancer, the method of removal (CCPDMA, Mohs surgery, POMA, etc.). The margin can be as little as 1 mm for basal cell cancer using CCPDMA or Mohs surgery, to several centimeters for aggressive cancers. The effectiveness of chemotherapy is often limited by toxicity to other tissues in the body. Radiation can also cause damage to normal tissue.

Because "cancer" refers to a class of diseases,[86][87] it is unlikely that there will ever be a single "cure for cancer" any more than there will be a single treatment for all infectious diseases.[88] Angiogenesis inhibitors were once thought to have potential as a "silver bullet" treatment applicable to many types of cancer, but this has not been the case in practice.[89]


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...