Cancerous Cells: All You Need to Know

Cancerous cells present mutations in their DNA--changes that alter the genetic material present in each one of them. This occurs for various reasons, including hereditary factors, bad habits, or exposure to toxic substances.
Cancerous Cells: All You Need to Know

Last update: 03 December, 2020

To date, scientists have identified more than 100 types of cancer. This pathology affects all mammals, except a rodent called the naked mole-rat. Early detection of the disease significantly improves prognosis. That’s why researchers are focusing their efforts on tracking and screening campaigns for the most frequent forms of cancerous cells according to age.

What is cancer?

Cancer is a process by which normal cells undergo changes called mutations. As a result, they begin to reproduce in an uncontrolled manner. This occurs because of a genetic predisposition, but also because of the lifestyle and the environment to which we’re exposed.

For the body to function properly there must be a balance between the birth and death of cells. The body has mechanisms to guarantee this balance, but when they fail, this indiscriminate cellular reproduction occurs, giving rise to neoplasms.

A DNA strand and a cancerous cell.
Genetic mutations cause cells to reproduce in an uncontrolled manner.

Categorization of cancer according to the type of cancerous cells

Depending on the cells in which cancer originates, there are five classifications for this disease:

  • Carcinoma: When the cancer cells are in the skin or the superficial areas of the internal organs. It’s the most common type.
  • Sarcoma: If it originates in the cells of the connective tissues, that’s to say, in the bones or the soft tissues. The latter include muscles, blood vessels, and other supportive tissues.
  • Myeloma: This type of cancer comes from the cells of the bone marrow.
  • Lymphoma: In this case, the cancer cells are the lymphocytes, which are part of the immune system.
  • Leukemia: Occurs when the bone marrow produces an excessive amount of immature white blood cells. It’s considered a cancer of the blood.

The differences between normal cells and cancerous cells

There are many differences between normal cells and cancer cells. The first of these is that normal cells stop reproducing when their number is sufficient to perform their corresponding function. Cancer cells, on the other hand, remain uncontrolled.

Other relevant differences are linked to cellular interaction. Cancerous cells don’t respond to the signals that other tissues send, while normal cells do.

On the other hand, when normal cells are damaged or age, what happens is that they repair themselves or die. This is the correct evolution for the proper functioning and maintenance of functions. Cancerous cells, however, don’t do this. This explains, in part, the irregular appearance and the increase in the size of the nucleus.

When it comes to adhesion, normal cells secrete substances that allow them to join another cell group. Cancer cells don’t do this, but rather travel throughout the body causing metastasis – that is, forming new tumor sites near or far from the area of origin.

What, then, are tumors?

Tumors are, therefore, masses that form due to the uncontrolled multiplication of a group of cells from any tissue in the body. Not every tumor is an automatic indication of cancer, so it’s important to make a distinction.

A tumor is benign when its growth is neither disproportionate nor aggressive. Furthermore, it doesn’t invade nearby tissues or metastasize – that is, it doesn’t spread to other organs of the body. On the other hand, a tumor’s malignant when the mass consists of cancerous cells and therefore can invade nearby tissues and even reach other regions.

What are the stages of cancer?

The process of cancer disease goes from when the cancer cells form until cancer reaches its terminal stage. This can take months, years, or even decades. The evolution isn’t always the same and the factors that are involved are countless.

The stages of cancer are as follows:

  • Stage 0: Refers to the moment in which the cancerous cells that originated by a mutation appear. It’s the longest stage and it involves uncontrolled multiplication. It doesn’t produce symptoms and diagnosis is unlikely.
  • Stage I: This is called the in-situ phase, where the cancerous lesion is already observable under the microscope. It’s possible to make an early diagnosis in some types.
  • Stage II: The cancerous cells begin to invade the adjacent tissues and this is therefore known as local invasion. In some cases, symptoms already appear.
  • Metastasis or stage III: The disease expands and affects areas other than the place of origin and adjacent tissues, known as a distant invasion. There are symptoms, which can be severe.
  • Stage IV: The terminal phase refers to a progressive and incurable disease. There are severe symptoms, in particular a characteristic intense pain that only admits palliative care.

What are the most common treatments?

There are several types of treatments for cancer and most commonly they’re used in combination. The medical team assesses which is the best option, depending on each case and protocols in place. Each country has developed, in general terms, guidelines for the therapeutic approach to cancer to establish the appropriate protocols.

Surgery

Doctors perform surgery to remove solid tumors. It’s usually not enough to remove microscopic lesions that may be around the primary lesion. That’s why it’s common for specialists to combine surgery with chemotherapy or radiotherapy.

Chemotherapy

This is a treatment that uses drugs or chemicals to destroy cancerous cells. What it does is prevent such tumors from growing and reproducing. However, it can also damage healthy cells.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy is a procedure that uses x-rays or other particles to kill cancer cells. It also helps to shrink tumors.

Other options

Other cancer treatments include immunotherapy, targeted therapy, hormone therapy, and stem cell transplants. Precision medicine helps define which is best suited for each patient.

Two doctors talking with a female cancer patient sitting in a wheelchair.
A multidisciplinary team will determine the best oncological treatment.

Healthy habits to prevent cancerous cells

A healthy lifestyle is the best way to prevent cancer. There are very simple measures that are effective in preventing this dangerous disease from developing. It’s best to follow these general guidelines:

  • Avoid tobacco use: Smoking is highly associated with lung cancer.
  • Maintain a healthy diet: The inclusion of vegetables has shown beneficial effects.
  • Perform physical activity regularly.
  • Protect yourself from the sun: Skin cancer may develop due to the effect of ultraviolet rays.
  • Get vaccinated: We currently have immunizations against hepatitis B and human papillomavirus. These prevent liver and uterine cancers, respectively.
  • Have a medical check-up: Periodical check-ups are a simple and inexpensive measure that helps prevent malignant progressions.
  • Mammograms, colonoscopies, and uterine cytology have already proven their effectiveness for years.

Cancerous cells require care

In conclusion, cancer changes the lives of those who have it and those around them. Therefore, the importance of prevention through self-care, expressed in a healthy lifestyle, can never be overemphasized.

Today science offers many opportunities to detect this disease in time and treat it with a high probability of success. After having suffered from cancer, one must also be careful, since the possibility of its reappearance exists, especially in the context of chronic pathologies.

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