What is Cancer?

Cancer is when a body tissue grows and has nothing to stop it.

Cells die every day and are replaced.  Skin falls off or is scraped and over a couple days it regrows.  Cells in the intestine fall off (slough off) as poop passes by and are replaced.  Blood cells get old and die after about 21 days and the bone marrow in our bones makes new ones all the time to replace them.  Usually body tissues only grow enough to replace what is lost through normal events. 

Cancer happens when cells keep growing and growing even when there are already too many.

How does that happen?

Genes are the most basic building blocks of the body.  They code for the proteins that make up the cells that make up the various tissues (liver, intestine, heart, lung, et cetera) of our body.  Genes also have start and stop areas that cause protein production to start and stop.  These stop and start areas are called codons.

When genes get damaged one of four things may happen.
     1.  Nothing.  If the gene is not damaged enough, it may continue to work normally.
     2.  It may produce abnormal proteins.  These may not work right or they may not work at all.
     3.  It may not produce at all.  If the start codon is damaged, it may not start.  Or, if the protein gene is very damaged it may not be able to be reproduced. 
     4.  It may not stop.  If the stop codon is damaged, it may produce more and more and more.  This could turn into cancer.  This is the most rare damage that can happen.  It does not happen as often as the other problems.

Our bodies have built in detectors to find these damaged cells and destroy them

Lots of things can cause this damage. 
-Getting older is the most common cause.  As our cells get old, they may get more mistakes in the genes as they replicate over and over.
-An abnormality in the gene that you are born with may make it more likely that another little bit of damage will make it turn into a cancerous cell.
-Things we are exposed to may also damage the cells.  Too much sunlight damages skin cells.  Tobacco smoke damages lung cells and bladder cells.  Alcohol damages stomach and liver cells.  Some chemicals that people are exposed to can also damage cells, such as radon, which is a gas that can escape out of the ground.
-Some diseases that people have can make them more susceptible to cancer.  Or the medicines they have to take for some diseases can damage the genes also.

We cannot prevent all cancer.  Getting old is not preventable.  Genes we are born with are not preventable.

We can work hard to avoid exposures that cause damage that can lead to cancer.  We wear sunscreen and avoid too much sun in the hottest parts of the day.  We don't smoke, and as adults we only drink in moderation (1 or 2 drinks a day.)  We can check our houses for radon and make sure the house is well-vented.  We exercise to make sure our bodies are very healthy.

Getting cancer is a combination of many factors.  Genes, damage, exposure.  These factors can add up.  We cannot say "This cancer was caused by smoking alone" because many things go into making cancer.  It is not helpful to blame a person for their cancer.  Some people who make very healthy choices (never smoke, never drink) get cancer anyway because their genes are susceptible to damage.  Some people who make very unhealthy choices never get cancer.


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