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All About Cancer

Close to 1.5 million new cases of cancer will be diagnosed in the United States in 2007. Thanks to advances in cancer detection, diagnosis and treatment the survival rates for many types of cancer have increased steadily over the years.

What is cancer?

The body is made up of many types of cells that grow and divide as needed to keep us healthy. Sometimes this process goes wrong and new cells form when they are not needed. The extra cells form a mass called a tumor. Tumors can be benign or malignant.

Benign Tumors are not cancer. They can be removed and often do not comeback. Cells in benign tumors do not spread to other parts of the body and these tumors are rarely life threatening.

Malignant Tumors are cancer. Malignant tumor cells invades and tissues around them. Cancer cells can breakaway from the malignant tumor and spread to other parts of the body. The spread of cancer is called metastasis.

What causes cancer?

Cancer is caused by a mix of factors related to heredity, lifestyle and environment. Certain lifestyle and environmental factors can change normal genes that stop the cell growth process into genes that allow cells to grow uncontrollably. The changes can be caused by factors such as diet, tobacco use, sun exposure and exposure to cancer causing substances in the workplace or environment. Some gene alterations are inherited (from one or both parents). Inheriting an altered gene does not always mean a person will develop cancer, however it means the chances of getting cancer is increased.

Can cancer be prevented?

People can reduce their risk of developing cancer by:

Not using tobacco products

  • Choosing foods with less fat and eating more vegetables, fruits and whole grains
  • Limit alcohol use
  • Exercising regularly and maintaining a healthy weight
  • Avoiding harmful sun rays and using sunscreen and wearing protective clothing

What are the symptoms of cancer?

Cancer can cause a variety of different symptoms. Some of the possible signs include:

Thickening or lump in the breast or any other part of the body

  • New mole or an obvious change in an existing wart or mole
  • A sore that doesn’t heal
  • Nagging cough or hoarseness
  • Changes in bowel or bladder habits
  • Persistent indigestion or difficulty swallowing
  • Unexplained changes in weight
  • Unusual bleeding or discharge

These symptoms are NOT always a sign of cancer and can be caused by other problems. It is important to see a doctor about any of these symptoms or other physical changes. Do no wait to feel pain because early cancer usually does not cause pain.

How is cancer diagnosed?

If cancer is suspected a doctor will conduct a physical exam and recommend a variety of test which may include:

  • Lab Test – Blood and urine test may be conducted. Test may also be done to check for tumor markers, substances that may be in higher than normal amounts in the blood or urine of people with certain cancers.
  • Imagining Procedures – X-rays, CT Scans, MRI, and PET Scans may be conducted to see whether a tumor is present inside the body.
  • Biopsy – In most cases the doctor will need to remove a sample of tissue to determine if cancer is present.

How is cancer treated?

Cancer treatment can include:

  • Surgery – is an operation to remove the cancer. The side effects of surgery depends on many factors including the size and location of the tumor, the type of operation, and the patient’s general health.
  • Radiation Therapy – use of high-energy rays to kill cancer cells in the targeted area. Radiation can be externally by a machine that aims radiation at the tumor area. It can also be given internally; needles, seeds, wires or catheters containing a radioactive substance are placed directly in or near the tumor. Side effects are usually temporary and most can be treated or controlled. Fatigue is common especially in the later weeks of treatment.
  • Chemotherapy – use of drugs that kill cancer cells throughout the body. The doctor may use one drug or a combination of drugs. The side effects of chemotherapy depend mainly on the drug being used and the dosage. Hair loss, fatigue, poor appetite, nausea and vomiting and diarrhea are common side effects. Side effects such as nausea and vomiting and diarrhea can be managed. Once treatment is completed most side effects gradually go away.
  • Hormone Therapy – certain cancers depend on hormones for their growth. Hormone therapy works by keeping cancer cells from getting or using the hormones they need to grow. Treatment may include drugs that stop the production or hormones or change the way they or work. Surgery to remove organs that make hormones may also be used.

Often, a combination of treatments is used. The decision of which treatment is recommended is based on the type and location of the cancer, whether the cancer has spread, the patient’s general age and other factors.

Where can I find our more about cancer?

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) is the Nation's primary agency for cancer research. It leads the Nation's fight against cancer by supporting and conducting research in cancer biology, causation, prevention, detection, treatment, and survivorship. The NCI also supports cancer centers, community-based clinical oncology programs, education, and outreach programs.

The National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Information Service at 1-800-4-CANCER, or the NCI’s Web site - This is the central Web site for NCI, the federal government's principal agency for cancer research. Patients and their loved ones, advocates, health professionals, researchers, and anyone else interested in cancer will find a wide range of authoritative cancer information here. Arranged topically for easy navigation, the site's broad content categories include:

The American Cancer Society is the nationwide community-based voluntary health organization dedicated to eliminating cancer as a major health problem by preventing cancer, saving lives, and diminishing suffering from cancer through research, education, advocacy, and service. With more than two million volunteers nationwide, the American Cancer Society is one of the oldest and largest voluntary health agencies in the United States. 1-800-ACS-2345 or