What is cancer?

crutchfieldsquareThe term “cancer” represents multiple diseases where the cells grow out of control. The cancer cells can either grow too fast or do not stop growing when they should. The devastating effects of cancer come from the ability of cancer cells to spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body and invade normal organs and destroy them.


The cause of cancer

Cancer is caused by cells where the DNA becomes damaged. DNA contains information on how cells should grow and behave. With faulty instructions, the cells can grow wildly out of control and cause harm to normal tissues in the body.

Artist depiction of cancer cells
Artist depiction of cancer cells

Cancer risk factors

  • Age. Cancer can occur at any age, but becomes more frequent as we age.
  • Lifestyle. Habits like smoking, excessive alcohol intake, sun-tanning, lack of exercise and being overweight are all associated with increasing the risk of developing cancer.
  • Family history of cancer. If your family has a history of certain cancers, your risk for those cancers is increased.
  • Environmental exposures. Certain chemicals in the environment can increase the risk of developing cancer. Exposure to tobacco smoke, industrial chemicals, radiation or asbestos are all factors that increase cancer risk.


Some general signs and symptoms of cancer

  • Constant tiredness
  • Unintended weight loss
  • Any mole that changes size, color or shape, or a mole that bleeds and does not heal in three weeks
  • Bowel or bladder habit changes
  • Constant cough
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Hoarseness
  • Constant discomfort after eating
  • Constant unexplained body pains
  • Constant fevers or night sweats

The diagnosis of cancer is made by a combination of events. These include a suspicion of symptoms and a physical exam by a doctor. Tests ordered may include blood-work and urine analysis, imaging studies (x-ray, CT scans or MRI scans), and/or performing a biopsy (taking a small piece of tissue and looking at it under the microscope).


Cancer treatments 

There are many effective treatments of cancer, most of which are used in combination. Treatments include:

  • Surgery
  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiation treatments
  • Hormonal treatments
  • Precision drug treatments. These treatments are based on the type of cancer you have.
  • Biological drug treatments. These treatments allow your immune system to do a better job fighting off your cancer.
  • Bone marrow transplants


Minimizing risk

It is not possible to completely prevent cancer, but there are things you can do to minimize the risk of developing the condition. These include:

  • Smoking cessation. Smoking is associated with many types of cancers, not just cancer of the lungs.
  • Protect yourself from ultraviolet rays of the sun and sun-tanning booths
  • Eat nutritiously. Eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, lean meats and whole grains.
  • Exercise regularly. The goal is 30 minutes four or five times per week.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Your doctor can help establish this goal for you.
  • Have regular doctor check-ups and vaccinations. Once again, your doctor can help establish the best schedule for you based on your past health history.

Remember, eat well, exercise often, don’t smoke, don’t do drugs, have regular medical exams, and talk to your doctor if you notice anything suspicious when it comes to your health.


Charles E. Crutchfield III, MD is a board-certified dermatologist and Clinical Professor of Dermatology at the University of Minnesota Medical School. He also has a private practice in Eagan, MN. He has been selected as one of the top 10 dermatologists in the U.S. by Black Enterprise magazine and one of the top 21 African American physicians in the U.S. by the Atlanta Post. Dr. Crutchfield is an active member of the Minnesota Association of Black Physicians, MABP.org.

One Comment on “What is cancer?”

  1. Why didnt you mention for people to live faraway from nuclear reactors too. So many people have cancers due to leaks and fallouts radioactive pollution is a major cause.

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