When tumors are benign they can be removed, and they usually pose no long term problem. If, however, the tumor is malignant it is considered cancerous because its growth is unregulated and invasive. Malignant tumors expand and impact on the organ that is affected, displacing normal cells and invading normal tissue. Even if a tumor is malignant, if it is confined to one particular organ the cancer can often be cured.
If and when metastasis occurs the prognosis becomes poor. Metastasis means that cancer cells are no longer confined to the tumor but have migrated from the primary site to other organs or tissues, usually through the blood or lymphatic systems. If metastasis occurs in a solid organ then death is the likely outcome.
Solid tumors can develop in virtually any tissue or organ, the most common sites being the lungs, breast, prostate and colon. While there is sometimes a correlation between the type of cancer and exposure to certain toxins (such as lung cancer and smoking), the cause of cancer remain a mystery.
Cancer runs in families but as far as we know, only a small number (5-10 per cent) are due to an inherited gene. However, it is apparent that genetic mutations (changes in DNA over our lifetime) can lead to the development of tumors. How and why these mutations are triggered, and the interaction with environmental factors (a field of inquiry known as "epigenetics") is difficult to say. Why some solid tumors metastasize while others remain contained is also unclear.
There are many theories about what causes cancer and how to prevent it, but none proven thus far by the evidence. The search for a cure is on account of its prevalence, which increases with age. Males in North America have a one in two chance of having cancer at some point in their lives, women one in three.
Symptoms And Treatments
Most cancers appear abruptly, although tumors can grow slowly and present few symptoms, remaining undetectable for some time. An aggressive cancer can appear "from nowhere" and cause death within months. Why patients succumb to cancer is complex, why it metastasizes is not known, and some cancers are more effectively treated than others.
When a diagnosis is made, its stage of development is assessed as a way of making a prognosis and a plan for treatment. In later stages, weakness, weight loss, pain, fatigue and other complications to vital organs can result.
Conventional treatments include surgery to remove the tumor and/or chemotherapy or radiation to kill the cancer cells and thereby eliminate or shrink the tumor. The mix of these approaches varies from cancer to cancer and depends on the presence or degree of metastasis and other factors.
If treatment is successful the cancer is considered in remission and the patient will be routinely monitored for evidence of relapse. Some patients relapse after a successful remission, but as cancer is better understood, more targeted drugs are being developed. These new drugs are not necessarily curing the cancer but are achieving better results -- longer or permanent remissions, with fewer side effects.
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