What is Cancer?

Cancer starts when cells divide abnormally in an incontrollable way. Some of the 200 forms can then spread throughout your body and destroy normal tissue.

An ageing population and other factors, mean that 1 in 2 people will get cancer in their lifetime.

However, medical professionals today have an increasing range of tools when it comes to beating cancer. Survival rates are improving dramatically due to advances in both diagnosis and treatment.

The causes and stages of cancer

Most cancers can be traced to changes in genes that happen over a person’s lifetime. Causes include infection, diet, environmental toxins and stress – together with an ageing population.

Other rarer forms appear to be hereditary and passed down through families.

In stage one, the gene changes cause cells to divide uncontrollably forming a growth called a primary tumour.

In stage two some cancers spread to other parts of the body forming more growths. These are called secondary tumours, while the process is known as metastasis.

The Four Pillars of Treatment

There are now said to be four main pillars of cancer treatment:

-Surgery. Highly effective for early stage cancers which can now be more highly defined.

-Chemotherapy. Chemotherapy uses chemically-based drugs to kill cancer cells.

-Radiation therapy. Radiation therapy uses high-powered energy beams, such as X-rays, to kill cancer cells.

-Immunotherapy. This exciting new development uses biological drugs to stimulate the body’s own immune system to fight cancer by seeing through attempts by cancer cells to disguise themselves.

Often given in combination, these treatments have increasingly high success rates. In some cases, the cancer cannot be cured and returns, but it is also increasingly possible to control and allow such patients to maintain an acceptable quality of life.

The importance of cancer biomarkers

Early diagnosis tests can make all of the above treatments more effective. Increasingly such tests are being developed using newly discovered cancer biomarkers. These are molecules secreted by tumours or as specific responses of the body to the presence of cancer and can be measured in non-invasively collected biofluids like blood or serum. In addition, they can be used prognostically to forecast how aggressive a condition is and predictively to understand how well a patient will respond to treatment.