The Idiot’s Guide to Cancer: An Introduction to a Frightening Disease

The mere mention of the word Cancer produces the same response in all of us—the fearsome prospect of an evil, malevolent, malignant, destructive process, which portends pain, suffering, tragedy and death.  It also suggests a process which victimizes us, and over which we have no real control.

The word itself means “crab” from the Greek word karkinos.  Our contemporary interpretation of the word relates to the apparent finger-like extensions of a spreading tumor.  The name actually comes from the dilated veins observed around an ulcerated growth in or under the skin.  It is hard to know how common cancer occurrences might have been throughout history; consumption (tuberculosis), diarrhea, pandemic infections (plague), kidney failure (dropsy), wound infection, famine, and war killed most of our ancestors in their youth.  The average life expectancy was only 30-35 years.

Cancer is by its very nature a disease of old age, and autopsies have only recently been performed to define a person’s cause of death.  Therefore, we can only guess how commonly it was, or what emotional impact it had through history.

But that was then.  Today, the mere thought of cancer scares the daylights out of most all of us.

But all that still begs the question—what is cancer, anyway?  Normally, the trillions of cells that make us us all have very specific roles to play.  Skin cells keep us waterproof.  Lung cells facilitate the incredible feat of allowing oxygen molecules to help all our cells produce energy in the form of the molecule ATP.  And liver cells perform a host of functions that keep us alive and happy.

So what is cancer?  It’s a process that begins when a cell “forgets” what its real job is.  Instead, it concentrates on recreating itself, endlessly.  It continues on, and on, and on.  And perhaps because it has no special job to do in us, it doesn’t know when to quit.  And it becomes a lump, or tumor.   With few exceptions among adults, this process continues over time.  When one considers the minute size of a single cell, it usually requires ten years or more for a growth to reach the size  of a very small marble (1 cm3).

So what’s the big deal?  First, consider the location of that small marble in one’s body.  A lump in the breast can often be palpated and quickly removed, but a similar lump in the right area of the brain can cause sudden death, leaving no clue as to its presence.

That brings us to the second property of cancer, the ability of cells to migrate away from their site of origin and begin to grow somewhere else in the body.  The phenomenon is called ‘metastasis’.  The effect of these secondary, or “metastatic” growths is dependent upon their location in the body.  A small marble in the thighbone may cause no symptoms, but as it enlarges, it destroys the integrity of the bone’s primary job—to bear weight.  The process produces pain by stretching (as the lump enlarges) the pain-sensitive outer surface of the bone (periosteum), or weakening it so that it breaks, sometimes after relatively minor stress.(Pathologic fracture is the name given to a bone which breaks due to the presence of a tumor metastasis.

It is this ability to travel to sites nearby, by direct or lymphatic spread, Lymphatics are tiny tubular channels which carry water from areas like the legs or arms to be merged with venous blood. or quite distant by the deposition of tumor cells into the bloodstream, which makes cancer so scary.