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Cancer basics: What you need to know

Most of the cells in our body go through the same process of growth and eventual death. Cancer cells are different. They form when cells in our body continue to grow without dying – eventually replacing normal, healthy cells.

Woman sitting outside, reading a book - cancer basics
To learn more about cancer, talk to your oncologist. They can give you specifics about your cancer and the treatment options.

Cancer cells are created when DNA is damaged and not repaired by our bodies.

According to Dr. Abhishek Seth, medical oncologist/hematologist with Marshfield Clinic Health System, these causes of cell damage may include:

  • Environmental factors: Cigarette smoke, sunlight and chemicals are common examples
  • Genetics: Some types of cancer can be inherited
  • Viruses: For example, some forms of cervical cancer have been linked to HPV

​​​​​​​​​​​​Types of cancer

Cancer includes many types such as breast cancer, prostate cancer and lung cancer.

Some cancers form as tumors, which are solid masses of cancer cells. Sometimes tumors stay in one organ, but others spread to other organs in a process called metastasization.

There are also cancers of the blood that can circulate to other organs. These types of cancers include leukemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“Each type of cancer is different and responds differently to treatments, which is why there are so many different types of cancer treatments. Each patient has a different clinical background and genetic make-up. Cancer care has become highly individualized in the last decade; with an emphasis on targeted therapy for patients with cancer,” Seth said.

Understanding the outlook

When someone is diagnosed with cancer, they often wonder what the survival rate is. To determine the survival rate, many things factor into those calculations.

Each type of cancer has different stages, which helps describe the size and reach of the cancer. Your doctor will use the type of cancer, its location in your body and how far it has spread to determine the stage of cancer.

“We have data from cancer patients across the nation that provide survival rates for each type of cancer in each stage,” Seth said. “Your oncologist should go over this information with you so you can best prepare for the situation.”

Other factors, such as your overall health at the time of the diagnosis or how the cancer cells responds to the treatment, can also play a role in the outcome.

To learn more about your specific type of cancer, talk to your oncologist.

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