Cancer explained: signs and symptoms

The word cancer strikes fear into the heart of most—but it doesn’t have to be that way. Feel more in control by improving your understanding of the disease.

Register for the upcoming webinar – Healing Cancer will help you understand your options for cancer recovery. For now, read more on what cancer is and the signs and symptoms of the disease…

Cancer

What Is Cancer?

Cancer is the name given to a group of diseases which involve body cells that become abnormal due to degenerative physical and behavioural changes. These cells accumulate to form an ‘out-of-control’ mass. A cancer mass exists and grows because of a consequential breakdown in immune defence efficiency that was originally designed to remove them. Untreated cancers can cause serious illness and death.

Normal body cells

Life existed first as single cells (protozoans) for billions of years before colonies of cells (metazoans) evolved to attach together and communicate as a team – a body of cells. Today there are tens of millions of different bodies of cells making up plants and animals. A healthy body is made up of trillions of normal cells which focus their behaviour as a community or team making up the various organs of the body. Individual cells work as a team by communicating using chemical and ionic signals with those adjacent to them. These cells grow, divide, live as long as they can and as healthily as they can, then die, according to the integrity of the organ group to which they belong. The various cells of the immune system work to provide an optimal environment to enable the body cells to live healthy long cooperating lives by protecting them from toxic chemicals and pathogens and removing those cells that lose the ability to communicate as part of the community — the cancer cells.

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How cells become cancerous

The basis of all cellular life is derived from DNA. The DNA in every cell creates the structure of the cell as well as directing its behaviour. In healthy cells, when DNA gets damaged or develops a mutation, the cell either repairs the damage or it commits suicide (apoptosis). In cancer cells, damaged DNA is unable to be repaired and the cell is unable to commit suicide. If damage occurs to those parts of the DNA that create the communication structures (similar to our eyes, ears, and tongue) then the cell begins to behave like an isolated cell without reference to the other organ cells. Cancer cells always occur in tiny numbers in every healthy person from birth. A healthy immune system however, always identifies and removes them before they can grow into a mass and cause damage.
Although it is rare, some individuals inherit ‘cancer inclined’ DNA which give them a very high risk of developing one of three types of very rare cancers (the polyposis coli tumours, the xeroderma pigmentation cancers and retinoblastoma cancers) if their immune system reduces in efficiency during life. Most people at birth, while they have variation within a DNA genome, have a low risk of developing cancer. Most cancers develop through DNA damage caused by mistakes (undesirable mutations) that happen while a normal cell is reproducing; or by toxic chemicals that get into cells, interact and modify the DNA; or superantigen viruses such as the Epstein-Barr virus which infect cells and actively destroy the integrity of the cells, including the DNA.
When an immune system is normal it has the capacity to remove all cancer cells, even when there are abundant carcenogenic chemicals and superantigen viruses in the body. When the immune system is weakened it has less ability to target cancer cells. In the majority of cancers, large numbers of cells clump into a mass of useless dysfunctional tissue. People don’t normally die from the occurrence of cancer cells in their body, although cachexia does kill people in advanced stages of cancer. Most people die because the cancer mass blocks the function of essential organs.
Some cancers however, such as leukemia, rarely clump into a mass. Leukemia is a cancer of immune white blood cells which travel throughout the body. All red and white blood cells grow in the bone marrow and if useless white blood cancer cells become the dominate cell type produced, the efficiency of the army of immune cells is decreased and diseases or infections that an efficient immune system would normally control, end up killing the individual.

How cancer spreads from its primary site

Healthy cells in an organ bind according to the organ blueprint. Cancer cells in an organ do not bind to the other organ cells, rather they clump like stacked bricks without mortar. As more cancer cells are replicated the loose mass of cells moves in the direction of least resistance, creating the crab-like structure of many cancers. If the loosely clumped mass of cells pushes into arteries they are quickly distributed around the body with the flowing blood. If they are not mopped-up by the immune system, they can continue to replicate and form new masses at distant sites to the origins of the cancer mass. However if the immune system still has some efficiency through its natural killer cells, these quickly replicating cells will be destroyed. The efficiency of the immune system in different parts of the body is dependent on many factors including emotional stress. The process of cancer spreading is called metastasis.
No matter where a cancer mass grows, it is always named for the organ in which it originated. For example, breast cancer that has spread to the lungs is called metastatic breast cancer, not lung cancer. Likewise, bowel cancer that has spread to the brain is called metastatic bowel cancer, not brain cancer. The different types of cancers are all different in many ways. Stomach cancer is a vastly different disease to a melanoma cancer. They have different causal mechanisms, proliferate at different rates and avoid immune cells in different ways. Because there are combinations of both genetic and lifestyle influences that underpin the different cancers, each type of cancer has to be addressed differently, indeed each personal cancer has unique properties that should be taken into account.

Not all useless masses are cancer

Useless masses are known as tumours. Not all tumours are cancerous. Those that do not form into cancer are called benign tumours. Benign tumours lack the ability to metastasise because they are typically surrounded by an outer fibrous sheath of connective tissue. Common examples of benign tumours include moles (nevi) and uterine fibroids (leiomyomas). Benign tumours can cause problems if they grow really large and press on healthy organs and tissues and disrupt essential function.

How common is cancer?

All people have cancer cells in their bodies but most do not have cancer masses that threaten their lives. Nearly half of all men and one-third of all women will develop cancer masses during their lifetimes.
Today, millions of people are living with cancer or have had cancer. The risk of developing many types of cancer can be greatly reduced by changes in a person’s lifestyle – seeking out the optimal emotional, mental, social, physical, chemical and food environments to which humans have been genetically adapted. Most people need to attend sociobiology workshops (like those offered by Bill Giles Health Ecology) to assist them to recognise and adjust to these environments. This is not the focus of most medical practitioners.

The signs and symptoms of cancer

Signs and symptoms can be considered as signals of injury, illness, disease or that something is not right in the body. Sometimes we are aware of them, sometimes it requires others to point them out to us as unnatural, like our friends and family members, or a doctor, nurse, or other health care professional. For example, lumps, fevers, rashes, laboured breathing, feeling weak, specific aches and pains
Cancers can cause a variety of signs and symptoms which 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, signs or symptoms may appear in different parts of the body. As a cancer grows, it can increase pressure on nearby organs, blood vessels, and nerves which can give symptoms of organ dysfunction. If the cancer is in a critical area, such as the brain, even the smallest growth of the mass can cause symptoms.
Sometimes cancer originates 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 to cause back or stomach pains. Cancers of the liver may grow for quite some time before the mass of cells press on the bile duct and block the flow of bile causing the eyes and skin to look yellow (jaundice). By the time cancers such as these cause signs or symptoms such as fever, extreme tiredness (fatigue), or weight loss, they are usually in an advanced stage.
Cancer cells are usually damaged cells (dysplasic). They are inefficient at utilising energy and when in advanced stages, they use up much of the body’s energy supply or release toxic by-products of inefficient digestion and produce signs and symptoms of toxic poisoning. Also some cancer cells release chemicals into the bloodstream that cause symptoms which are not normally recognised as relating to a cancer. For example, some pancreatic cancers release chemical substances that increase clotting of the blood causing damage to the veins in the limbs. Some lung cancers release hormone-like substances that raise blood calcium levels affecting nerve and muscle function, which may cause the individual to feel weak, uncoordinated and dizzy.
Many times people simply ignore symptoms and get on with their lives. Certainly most people do not have the knowledge to relate certain symptoms to the possibility of cancer. Some people become frightened of what the symptoms could really mean and find they have an inability to act decisively. Many chronic symptoms, such as exhaustion, recurrent pains, headaches, and indigestion, are most likely caused by other disease states than cancer. Commonly people reason that a symptom such as a breast lump is probably a cyst that will go away by itself, however any persistent symptom should be not be ignored or overlooked, especially if it is getting worse.
It can be a benefit to yourself, or even to your family and friends, if you know some of the general signs and symptoms of cancer. Having some of these does not mean that you have cancer because there are many other things that can cause these.

Mystery weight loss

This happens most often with cancers of the pancreas, stomach, esophageal or lungs.

Recurrent fever

Fever more often occurs when cancer has metastasised. Almost all people with cancer will have fever at some time, especially if it affects the immune system like with leukemia or lymphoma.

Extreme fatigue

Fatigue that does not get better with rest and good eating. Colon or stomach cancers which cause blood loss cause constant fatigue. Leukemia which affects the immune function causes mystery fatigue.

Ongoing pain

Intense and continuous headaches that do not get better with treatment may be a symptom of a brain tumour. Lower back or sacrum pain can be a symptom of cancer of the colon, rectum, uterine, prostate, bladder or ovary. Sometime pain is due to metastasised cancer. Deep pain may be an early symptom with bone, kidney or testicular cancers.

Changes to skin

Along with the obvious signs of skin cancers, some other cancers can cause changes to the skin including:
Darker looking patches of skin (hyperpigmentation)
Skin and eye whites turning yellowish
Reddened patches of skin (erythema)
Itching skin
Excessive hair growth

Changes to bowel movements

Long-term constipation, or increasing diarrhoea, or a change in the size of the stool may be a sign of colon cancer.

Urinating traces of blood

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) can be a sign of bladder or prostate cancer.

Chronic sores

Skin cancers may bleed and look like sores that don’t heal. A long-lasting sore in the mouth could be an oral cancer, especially in people who smoke, chew tobacco, or heavily drink alcohol. Sores on the penis or vagina may either be signs of infection or an early cancer.

White patches on the tongue or inside the mouth

These may be indicating the development of pre-cancerous tissue known as leukoplakia, that is mostly caused by frequent irritation, smoking or chewing tobacco. Leukoplakia can evolve into mouth cancer.

Mystery bleeding or discharge

Unusual bleeding can happen in early or advanced cancer. Coughing up blood may be a sign of lung cancer. Blood in the stool could be a sign of colon (black) or rectal (bright red) cancer. Cancer of the cervix or the 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 skin or lumps

Many cancers can be felt under the skin, such as the breast, the testicles, the lymph nodes (glands). A lump or thickening that is obviously growing in size or becoming inflamed.

Painful indigestion or trouble swallowing

Mystery indigestion or swallowing problems and recurring pains in the stomach or throat, that just develop and don’t go away, could be signs of cancer of the throat (pharynx) or the esophagus (the tubular extension from the mouth to the stomach) or the stomach itself.

Changes to moles or warts

Changes to the colour, size, shape, or the sharp borders of moles or warts could be indicating progression to a type of skin cancer including melanoma.

Nagging cough or hoarseness of voice

A nagging cough is often associated with lung cancer. Hoarseness of the voice can be a sign of cancer of the voice box (larynx), lymph nodes of the neck or cancer of the thyroid gland.
Other symptoms
The signs and symptoms listed above are the more common ones seen with cancer, but there are many others that are not listed here.

Things people do that predispose them to cancer

If people could live an ideal life, within a loving extended family, adequate food housing and money, a compelling life, close to the environments to which humans adapted genetically, the chances of getting cancer would be staggeringly low. The chances of getting cancer increase when people do things or expose themselves to situations, chemicals and pathogens which can harm their immune systems and certain cells in their bodies. For example, smoking can increase the chances of contracting cancers of the lungs, mouth, throat, bladder, kidneys, and other organs. Alternating exposure of your skin to intense sunshine and salt water for some days then being indoors for weeks and repeating the behaviour over months and years predisposes your skin to serious skin cancers when it is combined with meridian dysfunction, according to Chinese Medicine theories of the causes of skin cancer.

Injuries do not cause cancer

It is a myth that injuries can cause cancer. There are cases when a person visits their doctor for a physical injury and scans locate a cancer. The stress that follows injuries and traumas can weaken immune efficiency for a time and this can increase cancer masses. There are however, cases where burn scars can be the site of skin cancers many years after the burn healed.

Cancer is not contagious

A healthy person cannot “catch” cancer from someone who has it. There is no evidence that close contact or things like sex, kissing, touching, sharing meals, or breathing the same air can spread cancer from one person to another. Cancer cells from one person are unable to live in the body of another healthy person. A healthy person’s immune system recognizes foreign cells and destroys them, including cancer cells from another person.
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