I have been greatly touched by friends who have battled cancer over the years. Some are still fighting the good fight others have won it and sadly others lost it. In their memory I hope that this post serves as a general introduction to cancer origin and progression.
1. Cancer is not a single disease.
Cancer is a collection of diseases that are characterized by uncontrolled cell growth and invasion of other tissues. There are more than 100 types of cancer with different levels of aggression and responsiveness to treatment. Thereby there is not a single silver bullet to treat all cancers.
2. Cancer is caused by accumulation of mutations.
The underlying cause of cancer is the accumulation of multiple changes to our genetic code (DNA) referred as mutations. The accumulation of these mutations causes cells to become unresponsive to cell growth-governing functions thus allowing for uncontrolled growth. Uncontrolled cell growth, in turn, further facilitates the accumulation of other mutations that may cause cancer to develop into more aggressive forms.
3. Family history and environmental factors can increase risk of cancer.
Family history of cancer and environmental factors such as smoking, heavy drinking and STDs can predispose/cause someone to develop cancer.
Family history of cancer may be due to a genetic predisposition. Genetic predisposition refers to an inherited mutation(s) that may predispose someone to develop a disease.
Breast cancer is a classic example of genetic predisposition. Studies show that in the general population about 12% of women will develop breast cancer at some point, however, it is estimated that between 45% to 65% of woman with a pre-existing mutation will develop breast cancer. The culprits are the breast cancer related genes BRCA1 and BRCA2. Both of these genes are involved in DNA damage repair. Mutations in these genes may adversely affect the normal function of these genes allowing for the accumulation of additional mutations that may lead to cancer. Men and woman with mutations in these genes have a greater risk of developing breast cancer.
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Environmental factors may increase the risk of cancer. Substances that cause mutation that may lead to cancer are called carcinogens. Exposure to such substance can lead to cancer. A great example is cigarettes smoke. According to the CDC cigarette smoke contains more than 7,000 chemicals, 70 are carcinogens. Over time, the constant exposure to these carcinogens causes the accumulation of mutations that eventually will lead to lung cancer. That is why a smoker is 15 to 30 times more likely to develop lung cancer than a non-smoker.
4. Cancer formation is a multi-stage process that can take decades to develop.
Cancer develops in a multi-step process that can take decades to complete. Thereby most cancers affect people later in life. For example, in order for a cell to become cancerous, it must overcome biological safeguards such as growth control checkpoints and cell-death inducing signals that prevent cancer formation. In addition to these biological safeguards cancer cells must also cope with environmental challenges such as nutrient deprivation and lack of oxygen that restrict their growth and ability to invade other tissues. Moreover, cancer like infectious disease has to evade the immune response.
Natural selection drives these processes. Natural selection is an evolutionary process in which the fittest individuals are selected; in the case of cancer individuals are cells. Thus, natural selection requires diversity of traits within a population and the selection of those traits that are beneficial. This diversity arises mostly through mutations. Most mutations are either bad or neutral. However, in some rare cases a mutation may give cells an advantage over other non-mutated cells. In cancer, a beneficial mutation translates into the ability to proliferate independently of cell growth inhibitors or the ability to secrete signals that will trigger angiogenesis (blood vessel formation) and allow cells to invade surrounding tissues.
It is thought that early in cancer development cells acquire what is called a “mutator phenotype”. This means that cancer cells acquire new mutations at a faster pace than healthy cells. This increases the pool of new traits and the chances for a beneficial trait that can enable cancer progression.
5. Cancer treatments are different.
Given that there is not a single type of cancer. Cancers respond differently to cancer therapies. For example, a drug that may be effective treating prostate cancer may not necessarily be effective treating breast cancer or leukemia.
If you have a family history of cancer do not be afraid, talk to your physician. Early detention will greatly improve treatment success. Stop if you are engaging in cancer causing behaviors. Life is worth living to the fullest and cancer is not worth it! If you have been diagnosed with cancer and you are undergoing treatment, please remember the words of Christ:
“Everything is possible for one who believes.”
Trust in Jesus! He loves you more than anything in this world and keep the fight!
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