What is cancer?
The body is made up of trillions of living cells. Normal body cells grow, divide to make new cells, and die in an orderly way. During the early years of a person’s life, normal cells divide faster to allow the person to grow. Once the person becomes an adult, most cells divide only to replace worn-out or dying cells or to repair injuries.
Cancer begins when cells in a part of the body start to grow out of control. There are many kinds of cancer, but they all start because of out-of-control growth of abnormal cells.
Cancer cell growth is different from normal cell growth. Instead of dying, cancer cells continue to grow and form new, abnormal cells. In most cases the cancer cells form a tumor. Cancer cells can also invade (grow into) other tissues, something that normal cells can’t do. Growing out of control and invading other tissues are what makes a cell a cancer cell.
Cells become cancer cells because of damage to DNA. DNA is in every cell and directs all its actions. In a normal cell, when DNA is damaged the cell either repairs the damage or the cell dies. In cancer cells, the damaged DNA is not repaired, but the cell doesn’t die like it should. Instead, this cell goes on making new cells that the body does not need. These new cells will all have the same damaged DNA as the first abnormal cell does.
People can inherit damaged DNA, but often the DNA damage is caused by mistakes that happen while the normal cell is reproducing or by something in our environment. In adults, sometimes the cause of the DNA damage is something obvious, like cigarette smoking. But often no clear cause is found.
Different types of cancer can behave very differently. They grow at different rates and respond to different treatments. That is why people with cancer need treatment that is aimed at their particular kind of cancer.
Not all tumors are cancerous. Tumors that aren’t cancer are called benign. Benign tumors can cause problems – they can grow very large and press on healthy organs and tissues. But they can’t grow into (invade) other tissues. Because they can’t invade, they also can’t spread to other parts of the body (metastasize). In most parts of the body, these tumors are almost never life threatening. But in the brain, even benign tumors can sometimes damage nearby normal brain tissue. This can be disabling and may even be life threatening in some cases (see “What are brain and spinal cord tumors in children?”).
Last Medical Review: 08/12/2014
Last Revised: 08/24/2014