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Symptoms & Risk Factors

Cancer is the second leading cause of death in this country. However, improvements in cancer detection, diagnosis, and treatment have increased the survival rate for many types of cancer. Get the facts and remain informed.

  • The most common sign of breast cancer is a new lump or mass. A mass that is painless, hard, and has irregular edges is more likely to be cancerous but some rare cancers are tender, soft, and rounded.
  • A generalized swelling of part of a breast (even if no distinct lump is felt).
  • Breast skin irritation or dimpling.
  • Nipple pain or retraction (turning inward), redness or scaliness of the nipple or breast skin.
  • Discharge other than breast milk.
  • Having early onset of menstrual periods or late menopause.
  • Never having children or having first child after age 30.
  • Obesity, especially after menopause.

What is cancer?

Cancer is a group of many related diseases that begin in cells, the body’s basic building blocks. To understand cancer, it is helpful to know what happens when normal cells become cancerous.

The body is made up of many types of cells. Normally, cells grow and divide to produce more cells as they are needed to keep the body healthy. Sometimes, this orderly process goes wrong. New cells form when the body does not need them, and old cells do not die when they should. The extra cells form a mass of tissue called a growth or tumor. Not all tumors are cancerous; tumors can be benign or malignant.

Benign tumors are not cancer. They can often be removed and, in most cases, they do not come back. Cells in benign tumors do not spread to other parts of the body. Most important, benign tumors are rarely a threat to life.

Malignant tumors are cancer. Cells in malignant tumors are abnormal and divide without control or order. Cancer cells invade and destroy the tissue around them. Cancer cells can also break away from a malignant tumor and enter the bloodstream or lymphatic system.

Blood vessels include a network of arteries, capillaries, and veins through which the blood circulates in the body. The lymphatic system carries lymph and white blood cells to all the tissues of the body. By moving through the bloodstream or lymphatic system, cancer can spread from the original (primary) cancer site to form new tumors in other organs. The spread of cancer is called metastasis.

What causes cancer?

Scientists have learned that cancer is caused by changes (called alterations) in genes that control normal cell growth and cell death. Certain lifestyle and environmental factors can change some normal genes into genes that allow the growth of cancer. Many genetic changes that lead to cancer are the result of tobacco use, diet, exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun, or exposure to carcinogens (cancer-causing substances) in the workplace and in the environment. Some gene alterations are inherited. However, having an inherited gene alteration does not mean that the person is certain to develop cancer; it means that the chance of getting cancer is increased. Scientists continue to examine the factors that ma increase a person’s chance of developing cancer.

Although being infected with certain viruses, such as the human papillomavirus (HPV) and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), increases the risk of some types of cancer, cancer is not contagious. A person cannot catch cancer from someone who has the disease. Scientists also know that an injury or bruise does not cause cancer.

What are some of the common signs and symptoms of cancer?

Cancer can cause a variety of symptoms. Possible signs of cancer include the following:

  • A thickening or lump in the breast or any other part of the body;
  • An obvious change in a wart or mole;
  • A sore that does not heal;
  • A nagging cough or hoarseness;
  • Changes in bowel or bladder habits;
  • Indigestion or difficulty swallowing;
  • Unexplained changes in weight; and
  • Unusual bleeding or discharge.

When these or other symptoms occur, they are not always caused by cancer. They can also be caused by infections, benign tumors, or other problems. It is important to see the doctor about any of these symptoms or about other physical changes. Only a doctor can make a diagnosis. A person with these or other symptoms should not wait to feel pain; early cancer does not usually cause pain.

If symptoms occur, the doctor may order various tests and may recommend a biopsy. A biopsy is usually the most reliable way to know whether a medical problem is cancer. During a biopsy, the doctor removes a sample of tissue from the abnormal area. A pathologist studies the tissue under a microscope to check for cancer cells.

Does cancer always cause pain?

Having cancer does not always mean having pain. Whether a patient has pain may depend on the type of cancer, the extent of the disease, and the patient’s tolerance for pain. Most pain occurs when the cancer grows and presses against bones, organs, and nerves. Pain may also be a side effect of treatment. However, pain can generally be relieved or reduced with prescription medicines or over-the-counter drugs recommended by the doctor. Other ways to reduce pain, such as relaxation exercises, may also be useful. Pain should not be accepted as a normal part of having cancer. It is important for patients to talk about pain so steps can be taken to help relieve it. The fear of addiction or “losing control” should not stop patients from taking pain medication. Patients who take cancer pain medicines, as prescribed by their doctor, rarely become addicted to them. In addition, changing the dose or type of medication can usually help if the patient has troublesome side effects.

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