The best way to advocate for your health care is to become actively involved-and that starts with gaining knowledge. To help you, we have prepared some general information.
- General Cancer Information
- Screening and Early Detection
- Different Kinds of Treatment
- Side Effects of Treatment
- Your Medical Team
- Questions and Answers
- Glossary of Terms
Cancer is not one disease, but many diseases that occur in different areas of the body. Each type of cancer is characterized by the uncontrolled growth of cells. Under normal conditions, cell reproduction is carefully controlled by the body. However, these controls can malfunction, resulting in abnormal cell growth and the development of a lump, mass, or tumor. Some cancers involving the blood and blood-forming organs do not form tumors but circulate through other tissues where they grow.
A tumor can be benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous). Cells from cancerous tumors can spread throughout the body. This is called a metastasis. Metastasis or a mets occurs when cancer cells break away from the original tumor and travel through the blood stream or lymph system until they are lodged in another area of the body. Common locations of metastasis are the bones, lungs, liver, and brain.
The type of cancer refers to the organ or area of the body where the cancer first occurred. Cancer that has metastasized to other areas of the body is named for the part of the body where it originated. For example, if breast cancer has spread to the bones, it is called “metastatic breast cancer” not bone cancer. Often this is called a mets to the bone.
What causes cancer?
Our current understanding of what causes cancer is incomplete, but it is clear that cancer is not caused by an injury, such as a bump or bruise. Being infected with certain viruses may increase the risk of some types of cancer, but cancer is not contagious. No one can “catch” cancer from another person. Cancer develops gradually as a result of a complex mix of factors related to age, gender, environment, life style, and heredity. Scientists have identified many risk factors that increase the chance of getting cancer. They estimate that about 80% of all cancers are related to the use of tobacco products, to what we eat and drink, and, to a lesser extent, exposure to radiation or cancer causing agents (carcinogens) in the environment and the workplace. Some people are more sensitive than others to factors that can cause cancer.
Many risk factors can be avoided. Others, such as inherited risk factors, are unavoidable. It is helpful to be aware of them, but it is also important to keep in mind that not everyone with a particular risk factor for cancer actually gets the disease; in fact, most do not. Hereditary causes of cancer are rare and account for less than 5% of all cancer diagnoses. Some cancer is in the family or ‘familial’. This may be from the interaction of shared genes and shared lifestyle and environmental carcinogens.
How cancer is diagnosed
After a physical exam, the doctor will order various tests and exams. These may include imaging procedures such as CT, MRI or PET Scan, which produce pictures of areas inside the body; endoscopy, which allows the doctor to look directly inside certain organs; and laboratory tests. In most cases, the doctor may order a biopsy, a procedure in which a sample of tissue is removed. A pathologist examines the tissue under a microscope to check for cancer cells.
It is very important to take an active role in your treatment as you work with your medical team. The good news is that most cancers can be effectively treated if detected early.
At Commonwealth Hematology-Oncology, we’re committed to early detection and screening programs for breast, colon, rectal, prostate, cervical, skin, and other cancers as well as hematology disorders.
Screening typically involves four steps:
- A brief history to identify your cancer risk profile.
- A physical examination.
- Appropriate screening tests.
- Education that promotes positive lifestyle changes to help reduce your cancer risk
Your physician can explain the details of each step when you meet with him or her.
Because every patient is different, we customize your care and treatment accordingly. Therapies may be administered separately or in various combinations. Please read the following brief descriptions of available cancer treatments – it’s important for you to be familiar with them.
For more information about any of them, ask your Commonwealth Hematology-Oncology physician or nurse. We want you to become as educated as possible so that you can play an active role in making decisions about your care.
Chemotherapy uses medicines to stop the reproduction of cancer cells in the body and stop further growth or spread of a tumor. It is often used in conjunction with surgery and/or radiation therapy, and may be administered by mouth (orally), through a vein (IV), or in a muscle (IM). Treatment schedules vary, with some chemotherapies given daily, some weekly, and some every three or four weeks. Chemotherapy treatment is individualized, so not every cancer patient will receive the same drugs. Your physician will determine which drugs are right for you.
Learn more about chemotherapy in general and your drugs specifically at ChemoCare.com.
Radiation therapy targets a specific area of cancer using high-energy X-rays, directed at the cancer site to destroy or shrink tumors. Radiation therapy is often used in combination with surgery and/or chemotherapy. Usually, radiation is administered on an outpatient basis. Occasionally “internal” radiation (brachytherapy) is necessary, in which case a radioactive seed is implanted directly in the tumor or in a body cavity.
For more information about radiation therapy, visit the National Cancer Institute.
Immunotherapy works to combat cancer by enhancing the body’s immune system, which naturally fights disease. Many of the body’s own natural disease-fighting agents can now be produced in laboratories. Immunotherapy uses these man-made agents in treating cancer. They include growth factors, which are used to stimulate the growth and function of blood cells, and antibodies, which assist white blood cells in killing cancer cells.
Surgery is a major component of the treatment plan for most patients. Some operations are used to diagnose the specific kind of cancer(biopsy) and to determine its extent of spread. Whenever possible, surgery is also used to remove the cancer. Your doctor at Commonwealth Hematology-Oncology works closely with your surgeon both before and after surgery to be sure you receive the best possible treatment.
We are gaining a better understanding of the basic genetic and biochemical mechanisms involved in the development of cancer cells as a result of intensive international research efforts. This has lead to the development of new biological therapies that are targeted at the specific abnormalities in different cancers and blood diseases.
The treatment of a cancer may include the use of chemotherapy, radiation therapy, biologic response modifiers, surgery, or some combination of all of these or other therapeutic options. All of these treatment options are directed at killing or eradicating the cancer that exists in the patient’s body. Unfortunately, the delivery of cancer therapy often affects the body’s normal organs not involved by cancer. The undesired consequence of affecting an organ not involved with cancer is referred to as a complication of treatment or a side effect.
Why do side effects occur?
Side effects, or complications, of treatment may cause inconvenience, discomfort, and, rarely, death. Additionally and perhaps more importantly, side effects may also prevent doctors from delivering the prescribed dose of therapy at the specific time and schedule of the treatment plan. This is extremely important to understand, since the expected outcome from therapy is based on delivering treatment at the dose and schedule of the treatment plan. In other words, side effects not only cause discomfort and unpleasantness, but may also limit a patient’s ability to achieve the best outcome from treatment by preventing the delivery of therapy at its optimal dose and time.
Fortunately, in the last 15 years there has been a great deal of progress in the development of treatments to help prevent and control the side effects of cancer treatment. These compounds have led to vast improvements in the management of symptoms associated with cancer treatment, allowed for greater accuracy and consistency concerning the administration of cancer treatment, and have made many cancer treatments more widely available to patients throughout the world.
Managing the short- and long-term side effects of cancer treatment is one of the areas of expertise of a medical oncologist. The care of the cancer survivor is an important aspect of the care an oncologist provides.
To learn more about the side effects of the treatment prescribed for you, speak with your doctor, nurse practitioner, or oncology nurse. Your written treatment plan will contain valuable information about what to expect. You’ll also find additional information here.