What is cancer?
The body is made up of trillions of living cells. Normal body cells grow, divide into 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. After the person becomes an adult, most cells divide only to replace worn-out, damaged, or dying cells.
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 this out-of-control growth of abnormal cells.
Cancer cell growth is different from normal cell growth. Instead of dying, cancer cells keep on growing and form new cancer cells. These cancer cells can grow into (invade) other tissues, something that normal cells cannot do. Being able to grow out of control and invade other tissues are what makes a cell a cancer cell.
In most cases the cancer cells form a tumor. But some cancers, like leukemia, rarely form tumors. Instead, these cancer cells are in the blood and bone marrow.
When cancer cells get into the bloodstream or lymph vessels, they can travel to other parts of the body. There they begin to grow and form new tumors that replace normal tissue. This process is called metastasis.
No matter where a cancer may spread, it is always named (and treated) based on the place where it started. For instance, breast cancer that has spread to the liver is still breast cancer, not liver cancer. Likewise, prostate cancer that has spread to the bone is still prostate cancer, not bone cancer.
Different types of cancer can behave very differently. For example, lung cancer and breast cancer are very different diseases. They grow at different rates and respond to different treatments. That is why people with cancer need treatment that is aimed at their own 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 cannot grow into other tissues. Because of this, they also can't spread to other parts of the body (metastasize). These tumors are almost never life threatening.
Last Medical Review: 08/18/2014
Last Revised: 01/20/2015