What is cancer?   |   What causes cancer?   |   How will I know if I have cancer?   |   Common cancer terms

What is cancer?

Cancer is a disease in which some of the body’s cells grow out of control. This can make it hard for your body to work the way it should. There are many types of cancer, and it can show up anywhere in your body.

What causes cancer?

Anyone can get cancer. Cancer grows because of changes in your genes. These changes can be caused by many different things. Many people who get cancer may not know what caused it, but some common factors include:

  • Family history of cancer
  • Lifestyle habits, like smoking or sun tanning
  • Environmental exposures, like chemicals or radiation

How will I know if I have cancer?

There are many types of cancer, so there is a wide range of symptoms. If you notice changes to your body that do not go away after a few weeks, you may want to see a doctor.

Screening tests allow you and your doctor to find signs of cancer early when it may be easier to treat. These tests can usually happen at your regularly scheduled doctor visits. Medical experts recommend several cancer screening tests for the average person to get regularly. You might need other types of cancer screenings, or to be screened more often, than the average person. You should always be honest with your doctor so they can help you decide which cancer screenings are right for you.

Breast cancer screening

Mammograms are the best way to find breast cancer early. A mammogram is an X-ray of the breast. Experts recommend mammograms every 1-2 years beginning at age 40.

Cervical cancer screening

The most common screening test for cervical cancer is a Pap test, also called a Pap smear. A doctor uses a cotton swab to collect cells from the cervix (the lower part of the uterus) to look at them and see if any are not normal. Experts recommend Pap tests every 3 years, beginning at age 21.

Colorectal cancer screening

Screening tests for colorectal cancer can be:

  • Stool-based tests that check the stool (feces) for signs of cancer.
  • Visual tests that look at images of the colon and rectum for signs of cancer.

Experts recommend colorectal cancer screenings for everyone between ages 45 and 75. How often you get a screening test will depend on the type of test you get.

Lung cancer screening

Doctors can screen for lung cancer with a low-dose CT scan. During this scan, you lie on a table while an X-ray machine takes pictures of your lungs. If you are a current or former smoker between the ages of 50 and 80, talk to your doctor about whether a yearly lung cancer screening is right for you.

Visit the home page to find more information on choosing a doctor, paying for health care, or preparing for appointments.

Common Cancer Terms

Describes a tumor that does not spread and is not considered cancer. Many of these don’t cause symptoms or problems.

Chemotherapy uses powerful medicines or drugs to treat cancer. You get different chemotherapy drugs in different ways: Some are given through a shot or IV (thin tube in your vein). For others, you will swallow medicine or rub it onto your skin.

Describes a tumor that can spread to other parts of the body. A malignant tumor is cancer.

Metastatic cancer
Cancer that has spread from its original location to another part of the body.

What a doctor thinks is the most likely to happen from a disease, including a person’s chance of recovery.

Radiation therapy
Radiation therapy is a type of cancer treatment. This treatment uses beams of intense energy to kill cancer cells. Most radiation therapy uses X-rays, but there are other types too.

A collection of cells in your body. Tumors form when cells in the body grow out of control and don’t die when they are supposed to. Tumors can be benign or malignant.

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