Frequently asked questions about cancer

The Big C conjures many questions, such as, ‘what does the C stand for?’ And the answer to that question would be ‘cancer.’ But there are other not so easily answered and frequently asked questions about cancer.

Frequently asked questions about cancer

1.What is cancer?

Cancer is not a single condition but a group of hundreds of related diseases. All cancers occur when abnormal cells in the body begin to multiply uncontrollably and form clusters known as tumors. Cancers are named after the organ, tissue, or type of cell where they originate – which can be pretty much anywhere. However, tumors can also grow non-stop and invade parts of the body other than the one where they started.

2.What causes cancer?

Gene changes in cell DNA can cause cells to grow and multiply faster than normal, fail to stop uncontrolled growth, and make mistakes when correcting DNA errors. These gene mutations can be inherited or acquired.

3.How common is cancer?

About half of all men and one-third of all women in the United States will develop cancer during their lifetimes.

4.Are all tumors cancerous?

No. tumors that do not grow into regional tissues – though they can reach considerable sizes – are called benign and seldom grow back after they have been removed. On the other hand, cancerous or malignant tumors can spread to regional tissues as well as distant organs and, in turn, form new tumors elsewhere.

5.Are all tumors solid?

No. Cancers of the blood generally do not form solid tumors.

6.What’s the difference between normal and cancerous cells?

Normal cells grow into distinct types with specific functions and are replaced by new cells when they die. Cancerous cells survive a process called programmed cell death and can continue multiplying indefinitely. Additionally, can manipulate normal cells, molecules, and blood vessels in order to supply the tumor with oxygen and nutrients, as well as remove waste from the tumor. Cancer cells can not only evade the immune system but also use it to thrive.  

7.What is metastasis?

Metastasis occurs when a cancer cell breaks off a tumor and travels through the bloodstream to a place in the body other than where it started – though the cancer retains the name and the type of cells as the original cancer.

8.What are the most common types of cancer that begin in specific cells?

Carcinomas. Start in the epithelial cells that cover the inside and outside surfaces of the body. Subtypes of carcinoma include basal cell carcinoma (begins in the base layer of the outer layer of skin), adenocarcinoma (forms in the fluid or mucus-secreting epithelial cells), squamous cell carcinoma (forms in the epithelial cells just beneath the outer surface of the skin and which line the stomach, intestines, lungs, bladder, kidneys, and other organs), and transitional cell carcinoma (forms in a type of epithelial tissue called transitional epithelium found in the linings of the bladder, ureters, and part of the kidneys (renal pelvis), and other organs).

Sarcomas. Begin in the bone and soft tissues such as muscle, fat, blood vessels, lymph vessels, and fibrous tissue.

Osteosarcoma. This is the most common bone cancer.

Leukemias. Form in the blood-forming tissue of the bone marrow.

Lymphomas. Start in the disease-fighting white blood cells of the immune system called lymphocites.

Multiple myelomas. Begin in plasma cells.

Melanomas. Form in cells called melanocytes that produce the pigment that gives skin its color.

9.What are some of the most common types of cancer that begin in specific organs?

  • Breast.
  • Cervical.
  • Colorectal (Colon).
  • Liver.
  • Lung.
  • Ovarian.
  • Prostate.
  • Skin.
  • Uterine.
  • Vaginal and Vulvar.

10.What are the symptoms of cancer?

The symptoms vary according to the type of cancer, but some common symptoms may include the following:

  • Fatigue.
  • Lump or thickening under the skin.
  • Unintended weight loss or gain.
  • Skin changes, such as yellowing, darkening or redness of the skin, sores that won’t heal, or changes to existing moles.
  • Changes in bowel or bladder habits.
  • Persistent cough or trouble breathing.
  • Difficulty swallowing.
  • Hoarseness.
  • Persistent indigestion or discomfort after eating.
  • Persistent, unexplained muscle or joint pain.
  • Persistent, unexplained fevers or night sweats.
  • Unexplained bleeding or bruising.

11.What are the risk factors for cancer?

Being 55 years old or older, though cancer can affect people of any age.



Exposure to UV rays.

Family history.

Other health conditions.

Environmental factors.

12.What are the complications of cancer and its treatments?

·         Pain.

·         Diarrhea or constipation.

·         Chemical changes.

·         Brain and nervous system problems.

·         Unusual immune system reactions.

·         Recurring cancer.

13.Can cancer be prevented/detected early?

·         Screening tests can help detect cancer in its early stages and prevent many of its complications. However, screening for some types of cancer such as ovarian, prostate, and skin cancers has not proven to decrease deaths from those cancers. Individual patients should ask their doctor when and if they should be screened for cancer.

·         The human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine for females aged 9 to 26 and males aged 9-21 protects against the HPV types that most often cause cervical,vaginal, vulvar, and anal cancers, but it not substitute for routine cervical cancer screening (Pap tests).

·         The hepatitis B vaccine is available for all age groups to prevent HBV infection that can result in liver disease or liver cancer.

·         Not smoking and avoiding secondhand smoking can help prevent lung cancer.

·         Sunscreen and sun-protective clothing can help prevent skin cancer.

·         Drinking alcohol in moderation can help prevent mouth, voice box, throat, liver, esophagus, colon and rectum, and breast cancers.

·         Keeping a healthy weight can help prevent endometrial, breast, prostate, and colorectal cancers.

·         Exercising and eating a healthy diet can also reduce the risk of developing cancer.

14.What are some common screening cancer tests?

·         Mammogram for breast cancer.

·         Pap test for cervical cancer.

·         Low-dose computed tomography (LDCT) for lung cancer.

15.How is cancer diagnosed?

·         Physical exam.

·         Lab tests.

·         Imaging tests.

·         Biopsy.

16.What is cancer staging?

Staging determines the severity of cancer based on the site, size, and number of tumors, and whether the cancer has invaded regional lymph nodes, among other factors. Staging helps the doctor prescribe the most suitable treatment and estimate the patient’s prognosis.

17.Which are the stages of cancer?

Stage 0

·         Cancer in situ.

Stage I/II/III.

·         Larger tumor size and/or,

·         Spread of the cancer beyond the organ in which it first developed to nearby lymph nodes and/or,

·         Tissues or organs adjacent to the location of the primary tumor.

Stage IV

·         Spread to distant tissues or organs.

18.How is cancer treated?

·         Surgery.

·         Chemotherapy.

·         Radiation therapy.

·         Stem cell transplant.

·         Immunotherapy.

·         Hormone therapy.

·         Targeted drug therapy.

19.What are the goals of cancer treatment

·         The overall goal of treatment is to cure the cancer.

·         Primary treatment aims at completely removing the tumor or killing the cancerous cells.

·         Adjuvant treatment is intended to kill any cancer cells that may remain following primary treatment.

·         Palliative treatment is administered to relieve the symptoms of cancer and/or the side effects of treatment.

20.Are alternative medicine approaches for cancer?

Some patients may find solace, if not relief, in:

21.What physical/emotional changes can a cancer patient expect?

Physical changes:

·         Hair loss.

·         Weight loss or gain.

·         Surgery scars.

·         Rash from drug therapies.

·         Losing an organ, limb, or breast.

·         A surgical incision to allow waste to exit the body into a bag (ostomy).

Emotional changes:

·         Depression.

·         Anxiety.

·         Fear.

·         Anger.

·         Frustration.

·         Guilt.

22.How to cope with cancer?

·         Learn all you can about your type of cancer and its treatment.

·         Give yourself time to adjust.

·         Talk to cancer survivors.

·         Keep a network of family and friends.

·         Ask for and accept help.

·         Remain physically and socially active as long and as much as possible.

·         Seek professional counseling.

·         Communicate openly with your healthcare team.

·         Talk with a social worker at the hospital.

·         Join a support group.

·         Know your limitations.

·         Prioritize your tasks.

·         Break down tasks into simpler steps.

·         Focus on the things of which you still have control.

·         Seek financial help.

·         Set aside time to listen to music, read a book, watch a movie, or other relaxing and enjoyable activities.

·         Keep a diary.

·         Find healthy ways to express negative emotions as opposed to taking it out on others.

·         Ask your doctor or nurse how to manage the side effects of treatment.

·         Remember that cancer is nobody’s fault – let alone yours.

·         Share your feelings.

·         Find a support buddy:

-        Imerman Angels.

-        American Cancer Society: Reach to Recovery.

-        Colon Cancer Alliance Buddy Program.

-        Lung Cancer Alliance Phone Buddy Program.

-        The Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults.

-        Young Survival Coalition SurvivorLink.

·         Call or e-mail a cancer helpline.

·         Join an online cancer community.

23.What is cancer remission?

Remission is the period during which the cancer responds to treatment or is under control. Partial remission is when the cancer decreases in size but does not completely go away. Complete remission is when there are no signs or symptoms of cancer, and cancer cells are not detectable with any available test.

24.What is cancer survivorship?

This can be defined either as having no cancer after treatment, or the entire process from diagnosis to remission. Approximately 64% of cancer survivors were diagnosed with cancer five or more years ago; about 15% of all cancer survivors were diagnosed 20 or more years ago; and over half (60%) of cancer survivors are 65 or older.

25.What is follow-up care?

During follow-up care, the healthcare team monitors the patient for signs that the cancer has returned, manage long-term side effects of treatment, and check on overall health.

26.What are some of the long-term effects of treatment?

Surgery problems.

Heart problems.

High blood pressure.

Lung problems.

Bone, joint, and soft tissue problems.

Brain, spinal cord, and nerve problems.

Learning, memory, and attention difficulties.

Dental and oral health and vision problems. 

Digestion problems.

Emotional issues.

Secondary cancers.

27.Is the cure worse than the disease?

Cancer treatment is indeed tough, but the side effects are either temporary or manageable with medication and, ultimately, no worse than cancer’s eventual outcome if left untreated, which is death.

28.What is recurrence?

This is when the cancer returns after treatment. Cancer can reappear in the original site, in regional tissues or lymph nodes close to the original site, or in distant organs and tissues.


Related: Caring for someone with breast cancer