Cancer Basics: 

What is Cancer?

Cancer is a group of diseases characterized by excessive growth of cells.  There are over 200 different types of cancer and within each type of cancer are a number of subtypes. Within a given type of cancer the risk factors, clinical symptoms, treatment options and expected course can vary substantially, so that cancer type alone provides little insight into how a cancer will behave.  The fundamental element that cancers share is that they originate when a cell begins to make too many copies of itself, leading to excessive cell growth.  It is the excessive cell growth which gives rise to most of the symptoms that a cancer patient experiences, and is the focus of most of the treatments used today.      

How is Cancer defined?  

Cancer is defined by the site of origin of the cell that begins to grow in excess, which can occur in any organ of the body including the blood and lymphatic system.  The cancer type is the first of many categories which are used to define the disease, so that knowing the cancer type alone provides little additional information.  Cancer type does not change as the regions of the body involved change, so that a lung cancer which has spread to bone is referred to as “lung cancer with bone metastases,” rather than bone cancer.  

Cancer Diagnosis: How is a cancer diagnosis made?

Cancer may be detected when symptoms or abnormalities, such as a lump or growth, are recognized by a patient or doctor.  Diagnostic imaging is often then used to for visualization of abnormal masses using high tech machines that create images, such as x-rays, computed tomography (CT), positron emission test (PET), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and combined PET/CT. Detection or assumption of cancer is not the same as diagnosis.   
A cancer diagnosis begins with the confirmation of abnormal cell growth and typically requires analysis of cells under a microscope or other instrument which analyzes cells.  The source of tissue chosen to make a cancer diagnosis will depend on the type of cancer suspected, as well as the site of the body suspected of harboring cancer.   A procedure designed to confirm a suspected cancer is referred to as a biopsy.  Many biopsies are performed by surgeons, while others are performed by radiologists specially trained to use medical imaging such as CT scan or MRI to guide a biopsy.   The material obtained from a biopsy is sent to a physician specially trained to identify diseases in the laboratory, known as a pathologist.  A pathologist uses their knowledge of the normal appearance of cells to determine the site of origin of a cancer as well as additional information which may be obtained.  

What is the next step after a cancer diagnosis?

Once a pathologist confirms the cancer type, the next step is generally to determine the extent of cancer in the body, an important process referred to as cancer “staging.”  During cancer staging additional information is gathered such as medical imaging and further testing, which may entail additional biopsies and procedures.  Some patients find that cancer staging is a slower process than they anticipated, especially in light of the anxiety surrounding a new cancer diagnosis.  Cancer staging must be performed meticulously, however, since it is one of the single most important determinants in the overall treatment plan.   

Cancer Staging- How is it performed?

Staging is performed in a number of different ways, and the methods used for a given patient depend not only on the type of cancer, but also the level suspicion of additional body sites of involvement.  Staging methods can vary from simple physical examinations to specialized procedures, some of which require medical imaging.  There are established national guidelines to ensure consistency and accuracy of cancer staging, so that each cancer type has its own “rules” to guide staging.  These guidelines are set forth by leading cancer organizations such as the American Joint Commission on Cancer (AJCC) and the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN).   The providers on your cancer team at York Hospital will work together to ensure that your cancer is properly staged, in order to determine the most appropriate treatment plan.   

Cancer Treatment- What does it involve?  

Cancer care is a rapidly evolving field of medicine.  Despite these changes, surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy remain the most common options used to treat cancer today.  Other commonly used cancer treatments are hormonal therapy in breast and prostate cancer and more targeted drugs that have a more specific “target” than conventional chemotherapy.  Any and all of these treatments as well as medications to control the side effects of cancer may be used during your cancer experience.     

Team Approach:

As a patient at York Hospital you will meet a number of different professionals to help you from the time your cancer is diagnosed.  York Hospital’s cancer team includes physicians, nurses, physical and occupational therapists, social workers, nutritionists and wound care experts who all work together to provide you with the best care available today.  The wide scope of providers mirrors the varied impact cancer imparts on a person’s health and well being, as well as those of their family and loved ones.  We work together, often behind the scenes, to ensure that the care you receive will address all of your needs, from medical to emotional and psychosocial.   

If you want to have more information, some reputable websites to check are:
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