Cancer: Symptoms, Types, Pictures, Causes, Treatments, Statistics
What is Cancer?
Cancer is the general name for over 100 medical conditions involving uncontrolled and dangerous cell growth. Scientists suggest that some forms are caused by genetic factors, while other forms are caused by environmental conditions. In other words, one patient may already have a family history of breast cancer while another was exposed to a carcinogenic, or cancer-causing, chemical in a factory. The only difference is the root mechanism which triggered the abnormal cell growth.
Since cancer begins at the microscopic cellular level, the first signs of a malignant, or actively cancerous, growth are nearly impossible to detect without special tests and training. In the case of pancreatic cancer, for example, there is little to no pain involved as the first malignant cells form around the organ. As the tumor becomes more organized, new blood vessels may form to feed it directly or older vessels may be diverted. Meanwhile, the host body may only experience a few symptoms which resemble many other conditions. Only after a sample of suspicious tissue has been removed and tested can many forms of this condition be diagnosed.
One of the most insidious aspects of cancer is the way it grows. As the tumor outgrows the original organ, pieces of malignant tissue often breaks off, or metastasizes, and enters the bloodstream or lymph system. The cells can then attach themselves to other vulnerable organs and form new tumors. Thus a patient with pancreatic cancer may eventually have lung, brain, kidney, breast or colon cancer as well. This is why oncologists place so much emphasis on containing malignant tumors to their place of origin.
Treatment for these conditions ranges from rounds of powerful chemicals to focused burst of radiation to complete surgical removal of the tumor and surrounding tissue. Each treatment type brings a certain level of risk and pain to the patient, but cancerous cells left untreated will almost inevitably choke off vital organs and circulation. Chemotherapy introduces strong medicines which target fast-growing cells, but this also includes normal events such as hair growth and digestion. Radiation treatments use heat energy to literally burn off malignant cells, but healthy tissue is also damaged. Surgical removal can lead to a permanent recovery, but undetected malignant cells may have already metastasized to other organs or be jarred loose by the surgery itself.
Curing cancer has been a major goal of medical researchers for decades, but development of new treatments takes time and money. Already, there are many forms of cancer which are no longer considered untreatable. Some cancers, such as leukemia, can actually stop growing as suddenly as they started. This is called remission. Science may yet find the root causes of all cancers and develop safer methods for shutting them down before they have a chance to grow or spread.
Signs and Symptoms of Cancer
What are signs and symptoms?
Signs and symptoms are both signals of injury, illness, disease, or that something is not right in the body.
A sign is a signal that can be seen by someone else—maybe a loved one, or a doctor, nurse, or other health care professional. For example, fever, fast breathing, and abnormal lung sounds heard through a stethoscope may be signs of pneumonia.
A symptom is a signal that is felt or noticed by the person who has it, but may not be easily seen by anyone else. For example, weakness, aching, and feeling short of breath may be symptoms of pneumonia.
Having one sign or symptom may not be enough to figure out what’s causing it. For example, a rash in a child could be a sign of a number of things, such as poison ivy, measles, a skin infection, or a food allergy. But if the child has the rash along with other signs and symptoms like a high fever, chills, achiness, and a sore throat, then a doctor can get a better picture of the illness. Sometimes, a patient’s signs and symptoms still don’t give the doctor enough clues to be sure what is causing the illness. Then medical tests, such as x-rays, blood tests, or a biopsy may be needed.
How does cancer cause signs and symptoms?
Cancer is a group of diseases that can cause almost any sign or symptom. The signs and symptoms will depend on where the cancer is, how big it is, and how much it affects the organs or tissues. If a cancer has spread (metastasized), signs or symptoms may appear in different parts of the body.
As a cancer grows, it can begin to push on nearby organs, blood vessels, and nerves. This pressure causes some of the signs and symptoms of cancer. If the cancer is in a critical area, such as certain parts of the brain, even the smallest tumor can cause symptoms.
But sometimes cancer starts in places where it will not cause any signs or symptoms until it has grown quite large. Cancers of the pancreas, for example, usually do not cause symptoms until they grow large enough to press on nearby nerves or organs (this causes back or belly pain). Others may grow around the bile duct and block the flow of bile. This causes the eyes and skin to look yellow (jaundice). By the time a pancreatic cancer causes signs or symptoms like these, it’s usually in an advanced stage. This means it has grown and spread beyond the place it started—the pancreas.
A cancer may also cause symptoms like fever, extreme tiredness (fatigue), or weight loss. This may be because cancer cells use up much of the body’s energy supply, or they may release substances that change the way the body makes energy from food. Or the cancer may cause the immune system to react in ways that produce these signs and symptoms.
Sometimes, cancer cells release substances into the bloodstream that cause symptoms which are not usually linked to cancer. For example, some cancers of the pancreas can release substances that cause blood clots in veins of the legs. Some lung cancers make hormone-like substances that raise blood calcium levels. This affects nerves and muscles, making the person feel weak and dizzy.
How are signs and symptoms helpful?
Treatment works best when cancer is found early—while it’s still small and is less likely to have spread to other parts of the body. This often means a better chance for a cure, especially if the cancer can be removed with surgery.
A good example of the importance of finding cancer early is melanoma skin cancer. It can be easy to remove if it has not grown deep into the skin. The 5-year survival rate (percentage of people who live at least 5 years after diagnosis) at this stage is around 97%. Once melanoma has spread to other parts of the body, the 5-year survival rate drops below 20%.
Sometimes people ignore symptoms. Maybe they don’t know that the symptoms could mean something is wrong. Or they might be frightened by what the symptoms could mean and don’t want to get or can’t afford to get medical help. Some symptoms, such as tiredness or coughing, are more likely caused by something other than cancer. Symptoms can seem unimportant, especially if there’s an obvious cause or the problem only lasts a short time. In the same way, a person may reason that a symptom like a breast lump is probably a cyst that will go away by itself. But no symptom should be ignored or overlooked, especially if it has lasted a long time or is getting worse.
Most likely, any symptoms you may have will not be caused by cancer, but it’s important to have them checked out, just in case. If cancer is not the cause, a doctor can help figure out what is and treat it, if needed.
Sometimes, it’s possible to find cancer before you have symptoms. The American Cancer Society and other health groups recommend cancer-related check-ups and certain tests for people even though they have no symptoms. This helps find certain cancers early, before symptoms start. For more information on early detection tests, see our document American Cancer Society Guidelines for the Early Detection of Cancer. But keep in mind, even if you have these recommended tests, it’s still important to see a doctor if you have any symptoms.
What are some general signs and symptoms of cancer?
You should know some of the general signs and symptoms of cancer. But remember, having any of these does not mean that you have cancer—many other things cause these signs and symptoms, too. If you have any of these symptoms and they last for a long time or get worse, please see a doctor to find out what’s going on.
Unexplained weight loss
Most people with cancer will lose weight at some point. When you lose weight for no known reason, it’s called an unexplained weight loss. An unexplained weight loss of 10 pounds or more may be the first sign of cancer. This happens most often with cancers of the pancreas, stomach, esophagus (swallowing tube), or lung.
Fever is very common with cancer, but it more often happens after cancer has spread from where it started. Almost all patients with cancer will have fever at some time, especially if the cancer or its treatment affects the immune system. (This can make it harder for the body to fight infection.) Less often, fever may be an early sign of cancer, such as blood cancers like leukemia or lymphoma.
Fatigue is extreme tiredness that does not get better with rest. It may be an important symptom as cancer grows. It may happen early, though, in some cancers, like leukemia. Some colon or stomach cancers can cause blood loss that’s not obvious. This is another way cancer can cause fatigue.
Pain may be an early symptom with some cancers like bone cancers or testicular cancer. A headache that does not go away or get better with treatment may be a symptom of a brain tumor. Back pain can be a symptom of cancer of the colon, rectum, or ovary. Most often, pain due to cancer means it has already spread (metastasized) from where it started.
Along with cancers of the skin, some other cancers can cause skin changes that can be seen. These signs and symptoms include:
Darker looking skin (hyperpigmentation)
Yellowish skin and eyes (jaundice)
Reddened skin (erythema)
Excessive hair growth
Signs and symptoms of certain cancers
Along with the general symptoms, you should watch for certain other common signs and symptoms that could suggest cancer. Again, there may be other causes for each of these, but it’s important to see a doctor about them as soon as possible.
Change in bowel habits or bladder function
Long-term constipation, diarrhea, or a change in the size of the stool may be a sign of colon cancer. Pain when passing urine, blood in the urine, or a change in bladder function (such as needing to pass urine more or less often than usual) could be related to bladder or prostate cancer. Report any changes in bladder or bowel function to a doctor.
Sores that do not heal
Skin cancers may bleed and look like sores that don’t heal. A long-lasting sore in the mouth could be an oral cancer. This should be dealt with right away, especially in people who smoke, chew tobacco, or often drink alcohol. Sores on the penis or vagina may either be signs of infection or an early cancer, and should be seen by a health professional.
White patches inside the mouth or white spots on the tongue
White patches inside the mouth and white spots on the tongue may be leukoplakia. Leukoplakia is a pre-cancerous area that’s caused by frequent irritation. It’s often caused by smoking or other tobacco use. People who smoke pipes or use oral or spit tobacco are at high risk for leukoplakia. If it’s not treated, leukoplakia can become mouth cancer. Any long-lasting mouth changes should be checked by a doctor or dentist right away.
Unusual bleeding or discharge
Unusual bleeding can happen in early or advanced cancer. Coughing up blood in the sputum (phlegm) may be a sign of lung cancer. Blood in the stool (which can look like very dark or black stool) could be a sign of colon or rectal cancer. Cancer of the cervix or the endometrium (lining of the uterus) can cause abnormal vaginal bleeding. Blood in the urine may be a sign of bladder or kidney cancer. A bloody discharge from the nipple may be a sign of breast cancer.
Thickening or lump in the breast or other parts of the body
Many cancers can be felt through the skin. These cancers occur mostly in the breast, testicle, lymph nodes (glands), and the soft tissues of the body. A lump or thickening may be an early or late sign of cancer and should be reported to a doctor, especially if you’ve just found it or notice it has grown in size. Keep in mind that some breast cancers show up as red or thickened skin rather than the expected lump.
Indigestion or trouble swallowing
Indigestion or swallowing problems that don’t go away may be signs of cancer of the esophagus (the swallowing tube that goes to the stomach), stomach, or pharynx (throat). But like most symptoms on this list, they are most often caused by something other than cancer.
Recent change in a wart or mole or any new skin change
Any wart, mole, or freckle that changes color, size, or shape, or that loses its sharp border should be seen by a doctor right away. Any other skin changes should be reported, too. A skin change may be a melanoma which, if found early, can be treated successfully.
Nagging cough or hoarseness
A cough that does not go away may be a sign of lung cancer. Hoarseness can be a sign of cancer of the voice box (larynx) or thyroid gland.
The signs and symptoms listed above are the more common ones seen with cancer, but there are many others that are not listed here. If you notice any major changes in the way your body works or the way you feel – especially if it lasts for a long time or gets worse – let a doctor know. If it has nothing to do with cancer, the doctor can find out more about what’s going on and, if needed, treat it. If it is cancer, you’ll give yourself the chance to have it treated early, when treatment works best.
Types of Cancer
Bile Duct Cancer
Brain/CNS Tumors In Adults
Brain/CNS Tumors In Children
Breast Cancer In Men
Cancer in Children
Cancer of Unknown Primary
Ewing Family Of Tumors
Gastrointestinal Carcinoid Tumors
Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumor (GIST)
Gestational Trophoblastic Disease
Laryngeal and Hypopharyngeal Cancer
Leukemia - Acute Lymphocytic (ALL) in Adults
Leukemia - Acute Myeloid (AML)
Leukemia - Chronic Lymphocytic (CLL)
Leukemia - Chronic Myeloid (CML)
Leukemia - Chronic Myelomonocytic (CMML)
Leukemia in Children
Lung Cancer - Non-Small Cell
Lung Cancer - Small Cell
Lung Carcinoid Tumor
Lymphoma of the Skin
Nasal Cavity and Paranasal Sinus Cancer
Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma In Children
Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancer
Salivary Gland Cancer
Sarcoma - Adult Soft Tissue Cancer
Skin Cancer - Basal and Squamous Cell
Skin Cancer - Melanoma
Small Intestine Cancer
Cancer Treatment Types
Find out what you need to know about the most common types of cancer treatment, such as surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and many others. Learn how they work and why they are used, and get an idea of what to expect and how they might affect you if you're getting them.
Surgery can be used to diagnose, treat, or even help prevent cancer in some cases. Most people with cancer will have some type of surgery. It often offers the greatest chance for cure, especially if the cancer has not spread to other parts of the body.
Chemotherapy (chemo) is the use of medicines or drugs to treat cancer. The thought of having chemotherapy frightens many people. But knowing what chemotherapy is, how it works, and what to expect can often help calm your fears. It can also give you a better sense of control over your cancer treatment.
Radiation therapy uses high-energy particles or waves to destroy or damage cancer cells. It is one of the most common treatments for cancer, either by itself or along with other forms of treatment.
Targeted therapy is a newer type of cancer treatment that uses drugs or other substances to more precisely identify and attack cancer cells, usually while doing little damage to normal cells. Targeted therapy is a growing part of many cancer treatment regimens.
Immunotherapy is treatment that uses your body's own immune system to help fight cancer.
The idea of using heat to treat cancer has been around for some time, but early attempts had mixed results. Today, newer tools allow more precise delivery of heat, and hyperthermia is being studied for use against many types of cancer.
Stem Cell Transplant (Peripheral Blood, Bone Marrow, and Cord Blood Transplants)
Stem cell transplants are used to replace bone marrow that has been destroyed by disease, chemo, or radiation. In some diseases, like leukemia, aplastic anemia, certain inherited blood diseases, and some diseases of the immune system, the stem cells in the bone marrow don’t work the way they should.
Photodynamic therapy or PDT is a treatment that uses special drugs, called photosensitizing agents, along with light to kill cancer cells. The drugs only work after they have been activated or "turned on" by certain kinds of light.
Lasers in Cancer Treatment
Lasers, which are very powerful, precise beams of light, can be used instead of blades (scalpels) for very careful surgical work, including treating some cancers.
Blood Product Donation and Transfusion
Transfusions of blood and blood products temporarily replace parts of the blood when a person's body can't make its own or has lost them from bleeding. People with cancer might need blood transfusions because of the cancer itself and the associated blood loss.
Causes of Cancer
The vast majority of cancers are sporadic. There is no clear cause why one person gets cancer and another does not. Cancer develops over time when certain normal genes start mutating. Such cells multiply rapidly and become malignant. These gene mutations occur due to a complex mix of factors related to lifestyle, heredity and environment.
A risk factor is anything that increases a person’s chance of developing cancer. Different cancers have different risk factors. Use of tobacco, certain diets, alcohol, exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation, and to a lesser extent, exposure to cancer causing agents (carcinogens) in the environment and the workplace are some of the potential catalysts of cancer. It is important to remember, however, that these factors increase a person’s risk but do not always "cause" the disease.
Up to 85 per cent of cancers can be prevented by avoiding environmental risk factors like smoking, sun exposure, alcohol abuse and poor nutrition. Though age, race, gender and family history cannot be changed, knowing your personal cancer risk can help you devise a prevention strategy with regular screenings and healthy lifestyle choices. Having one or more risk factors for cancer doesn’t mean you will get cancer. In fact, many people considered high-risk never develop cancer while others with no known risk factors become ill.
Environmental Risk Factors of Cancer
High levels of radiation like those from radiation therapies and x-rays (repeated exposure) can damage normal cells and increase the risk of developing leukemia, as well as cancers of the breast, thyroid, lung, stomach and other organs.
Ultraviolet (UV) Radiation
UV radiation from the sun are directly linked to melanoma and other forms of skin cancer. These harmful rays of the sun cause premature aging and damage the skin. Artificial sources of UV radiation, such as sun lamps and tanning booths, also increase the risk of skin cancer. By wearing protective clothing and sunscreens and by avoiding prolonged exposure to the sun, one may reduce the risk of skin cancer. Many of the 1.3 million skin cancers diagnosed in the year 2000 could have been prevented by protection from the sun’s rays.
Some viruses, including hepatitis B and C, human papillomaviruses (HPV), and the Epstein Barr virus, which causes infectious mononucleosis, have been associated with increased cancer risk. Immune system diseases, such as AIDS, can make one more susceptible to some cancers.
Long term exposure to chemicals such as pesticides, uranium, nickel, asbestos, radon and benzene can increase the risk of cancer. Such carcinogens may act alone or in combination with another carcinogen, such as cigarette smoke, to increase the risk of cancer and other lung diseases.
Cigarette smoking and regular exposure to tobacco smoke greatly increase lung cancer. Cigarette smokers are more likely to develop several other types of cancer like those of the mouth, larynx, esophagus, pancreas, bladder, kidney and cervix. Smoking may also increase the likelihood of developing cancers of the stomach, liver, prostate, colon and rectum. The use of other tobacco products, such as chewing tobacco, are linked to cancers of the mouth, tongue and throat. The risk of cancer decreases soon after a smoker quits, while precancerous conditions often diminish after a person stops using smokeless tobacco.
Heavy drinkers face an increased risk of cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus, larynx and liver. Some studies suggest that even moderate drinking may slightly increase the risk of breast cancer. All cancers caused by cigarette smoking and heavy use of alcohol could be prevented completely. The American Cancer Society (ACS) estimated that in the year 2000 about 171,000 cancer deaths were expected to be caused by tobacco use, and about 19,000 cancer deaths were to be related to excessive alcohol use, frequently in combination with tobacco use.
High-fat, high cholesterol diets are proven risk factors for several types of cancer such as those of the colon, uterus and prostate. Obesity may be linked to breast cancer among older women as well as to cancers of the prostate, pancreas, uterus, colon and ovary. Many cancers that are related to dietary factors could be prevented. Healthy food choices and a well balanced diet including fiber, vitamins, minerals and low fat items may help to reduce cancer risk. Scientific evidence suggests that up to one-third of the 552,200 cancer deaths expected to occur in the US in the year 2000 were related to nutrition and other lifestyle factors. Certain cancers are related to viral infections-for example, hepatitis B virus (HBV), human papillomavirus (HPV), human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), human T-cell leukemia/lymphoma virus-I (HTLV-I), and others-that can be prevented through behavioral changes.
Regular screening examinations by a health care professional can result in the detection of cancers of the breast, colon, rectum, cervix, prostate, testis, oral cavity, and skin at an earlier stage, when treatment is more likely to be successful. Self-examinations for cancers of the breast and skin may also result in detection of tumors at early stages. The screening-accessible cancers listed above account for about half of all new cancer cases.
The 5-year relative survival rate for these cancers is about 80%. If all Americans participated in regular cancer screenings, this rate could increase to 95%.
Hereditary Risk Factors
Twenty percent of cancers are hereditary. This means that the abnormal gene responsible for causing cancer is passed from parent to child, posing a greater risk for that type of cancer in all descendants of the family. However, just because someone has a cancer-causing gene doesn’t mean they will automatically get cancer. If hereditary cancer is suspected, family members should consider genetic counseling and testing to determine their risk. If diagnosed in the early stages, such cancers are most responsive to treatment.
Signs of hereditary cancer include:
A theory exists with some scientific support, that certain smokers have a higher risk of smoking-induced lung cancer than others because of their genetic make-up.
Some cancers are more common among certain ethnic groups.
Many cancers are associated with having a family history of that cancer. Breast, ovarian, prostate and colon are some of these cancers.
Several Relatives With Cancer
Cancer is such a common disease (with an estimated average of one case of cancer among every four people in the United States) that many families will have at least a few affected members. Approximately up to 15% of all cancers have a familial basis. That means that the cancer tends to occur among members of a family. Much of the time, different types of cancer occur apparently by chance, or in association with common family habits such as cigarette smoking. However, studies have suggested that certain cancers can occur to excess in some families. For example, a woman whose mother and/or sisters (first-degree relatives) had breast cancer, is 2-3 times more likely to develop breast cancer than a woman whose close female relatives have not had breast cancer.
Cancers That Are Common In Some Families
A few types of childhood cancers are known to occur more often in some families. Researchers learned about how tumor suppressor genes work, through their study of retinoblastoma, a childhood cancer that originates in the eye. About 40% of children with retinoblastoma have inherited an abnormal Rb tumor suppressor gene from one parent. About 80% of children who inherit an abnormal Rb gene from a parent develop a retinoblastoma in one or both eyes.
Multiple Or Bilateral Cancers In Families
In some families, cancers of one or more types develop in several family members significantly more often than the average cancer occurrence. Families with above average occurrence of breast cancer, for example, have been observed to have more cancers of the ovary, colon, or endometrium (body of the uterus) than expected.
Rare Or Unusual Types of Cancers Among Twins
Leukemia rarely occurs in siblings. However, when an identical twin under 6 years of age has childhood leukemia, the probability that the other twin will develop the disease is about one in five, a magnitude of risk far exceeding the level in the general population.
Scientists are continuing to explore whether cancers in families develop only because of genes or also because of the environment that a family shares. Overall, genetically determined cancers tend to occur earlier in life than other cancers of the same type.