Today, more than 15 million people alive in the United States have had some type of cancer. Some of these people are cancer-free; others still have it.
Years ago, most people who had cancer did not live very long. That’s not the case anymore. Every year more and more people survive cancer. This is especially true of children with cancer and those whose cancers were found early, before they spread.
The survival rates are different for people with different types of cancers. Some types of cancer grow very slowly. Some respond to treatment very well. Others grow and spread faster and are harder to treat. If you know someone who has cancer, keep in mind that what happens to them could be very different from what happens to someone else with cancer.
What Is Cancer?
Cancer can start any place in the body. It starts when cells grow out of control and crowd out normal cells. This makes it hard for the body to work the way it should.
Cancer can be treated very well for many people. In fact, more people than ever before lead full lives after cancer treatment.
Here we will explain what cancer is and how it’s treated. You’ll find a list of words about cancer and what they mean at the end of this booklet.
Cancer is not just one disease.
There are many types of cancer. It’s not just one disease. Cancer can start in the lungs, the breast, the colon, or even in the blood. Cancers are alike in some ways, but they are different in the ways they grow and spread.
Who gets cancer?
Over one and a half million new cancer cases are diagnosed each year. Anyone can get cancer at any age, but the risk goes up with age. Nearly 9 out of 10 cancers are diagnosed in people ages 50 and older. Cancer can be found in people of all racial and ethnic groups, but the rate of cancer occurrence (called the incidence rate) varies from group to group.
How does cancer cause signs and symptoms?
Cancer is a group of diseases that can cause almost any sign or symptom. The signs and symptoms will depend on where the cancer is, how big it is, and how much it affects the organs or tissues. If a cancer has spread (metastasized), signs or symptoms may appear in different parts of the body.
As a cancer grows, it can begin to push on nearby organs, blood vessels, and nerves. This pressure causes some of the signs and symptoms of cancer. If the cancer is in a critical area, such as certain parts of the brain, even the smallest tumor can cause symptoms.
But sometimes cancer starts in places where it won’t cause any signs or symptoms until it has grown quite large. Cancers of the pancreas, for example, usually don’t cause symptoms until they grow large enough to press on nearby nerves or organs (this causes back or belly pain). Others may grow around the bile duct and block the flow of bile. This causes the eyes and skin to look yellow (jaundice). By the time a pancreatic cancer causes signs or symptoms like these, it’s usually in an advanced stage. This means it has grown and spread beyond the place it started – the pancreas.
A cancer may also cause symptoms like fever, extreme tiredness (fatigue), or weight loss. This may be because cancer cells use up much of the body’s energy supply, or they may release substances that change the way the body makes energy from food. Cancer can also cause the immune system to react in ways that produce these signs and symptoms.
Sometimes, cancer cells release substances into the bloodstream that cause symptoms that are not usually linked to cancer. For example, some cancers of the pancreas can release substances that cause blood clots in veins of the legs. Some lung cancers make hormone-like substances that raise blood calcium levels. This affects nerves and muscles, making the person feel weak and dizzy.
What are some general signs and symptoms of cancer?
You should know some of the general signs and symptoms of cancer. But remember, having any of these does not mean that you have cancer – many other things cause these signs and symptoms, too. If you have any of these symptoms and they last for a long time or get worse, please see a doctor to find out what’s going on.
Unexplained weight loss
Most people with cancer will lose weight at some point. When you lose weight for no known reason, it’s called an unexplained weight loss. An unexplained weight loss of 10 pounds or more may be the first sign of cancer. This happens most often with cancers of the pancreas, stomach, esophagus (swallowing tube), or lung.
Fever is very common with cancer, but it more often happens after cancer has spread from where it started. Almost all people with cancer will have fever at some time, especially if the cancer or its treatment affects the immune system. (This can make it harder for the body to fight infection.) Less often, fever may be an early sign of cancer, such as blood cancers like leukemia or lymphoma.
Fatigue is extreme tiredness that doesn’t get better with rest. It may be an important symptom as cancer grows. But it may happen early in some cancers, like leukemia. Some colon or stomach cancers can cause blood loss that’s not obvious. This is another way cancer can cause fatigue.
Pain may be an early symptom with some cancers like bone cancers or testicular cancer. A headache that does not go away or get better with treatment may be a symptom of a brain tumor. Back pain can be a symptom of cancer of the colon, rectum, or ovary. Most often, pain due to cancer means it has already spread (metastasized) from where it started.
Along with skin cancers, some other cancers can cause skin changes that can be seen. These signs and symptoms include:
Darker looking skin (hyperpigmentation)
Yellowish skin and eyes (jaundice)
Reddened skin (erythema)
Excessive hair growth
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