After Diagnosis: A Guide for Patients and Families

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What is cancer?

Cancer is not just one disease. There are many types of cancer. Cancer can start in many different places in the body. It can start in the lungs, the breast, the colon, or even in the blood. Cancers are alike in some ways, but they are also different in the ways they grow and spread.

How are cancers alike?

The cells in our bodies all have certain jobs to do. Normal cells divide in an orderly way. They die when they are worn out or damaged; then they are replaced with new cells. Cancer is a disease in which cells start to grow out of control. The cancer cells keep on growing and making new cells. They crowd out normal cells. This causes problems in the part of the body where the cancer started.

Cancer cells can also spread to other parts of the body. For example, cancer cells in the lung can travel to the bones and grow there. When cancer cells spread, it’s called metastasis (muh-tas-tuh-sis).

How are cancers different?

Some cancers tend to grow and spread very quickly. Others grow more slowly. They also respond to treatment in different ways. Some types of cancer are best treated with surgery. Others do better with drugs called chemotherapy ([key-mo-THER-uh-pee] often called simply chemo [key-mo]). Often 2 or more treatments are used to get the best results.

When someone has cancer, the doctor will want to find out what kind of cancer it is. People with cancer need treatment that’s aimed at their type of cancer.

Last Medical Review: 03/06/2014
Last Revised: 04/07/2014