Cancer and its Treatments

Cancer is a major killer of people all around the globe. We do not have a definite cure, but the amount of research done on this one disease costs on the average of $1.2 billion dollars annually, and $20 billion annually in care of cancer patients. What is Cancer? Cancer is a broad ranging term that is used by many people, including medical professionals such as doctors. Cancer, in its most fatal and aggressive form, is of a larger class of diseases known as neoplasms. There are two forms of a neoplasm: benign or malignant. A benign neoplasm is encapsulated, or surrounded, so that it’s growth is restricted, whereas a malignant neoplasm is not closed in. Malignant tumors grow much more quickly than benign forms and spread into the surrounding normal tissue, and virtually destroy it. (Grolier Electronic Encyclopedia, Cancer). The question is, what exactly is cancer? Cancer, is the break down and mutation of the cells of the body, when the DNA (Deoxyribonucleic Acid) sequences in those molecules are disrupted and errors form in the structures, (Grolier, Genetic Code).

This mutation spreads through surrounding tissue until it disrupts major systems in the body (such as respiratory, digestive and waste management) cause that system to fail. Cancer does not jump out of the woodwork in a day; in most cases, it takes a long time for cancer to become detectable, depending on the type, and where it is growing. It has shown that cancer detected in the earliest stages of its growth is far easier to stop, and so the American Cancer Society has begun to promote public awareness of the seven warning signs to look for: (1) a change in bowel or bladder function; (2) a sore that does not heal; (3) unusual bleeding or discharge; (4) a thickening or lump in the breast or elsewhere; (5) indigestion or difficulty in swallowing; (6) an obvious change in a wart or a mole; and, (7) a nagging cough or hoarseness. Should anyone exhibit any of these symptoms, they should see a physician immediately. (Groiler, Cancer) Treatment of cancer seems to be more of an art than a science at the moment. Especially in the areas of surgery, radiation treatment, chemotherapy and other areas.

Surgical removal of a cancer from the body is the oldest and sometimes most effective means of disrupting and stopping cancer growth. Surgery can be used to remove malignant or benign tumors within the body, although the practice of removing benign tumors is not practiced due to the possibility of making it active. Removal of complete malignant tumors is often successful in halting cancer growth in that particular region, when followed by radiation therapy. It is also possible to remove parts of tumors, to reduce the amount of cancerous tissue in the body as a whole. The one major drawback to surgery is that quite often a tumor is not accessible to a surgeon, or it may be attached to a major organ of the body, in which removing the tumor may cause serious side affects and even death. So long as a cancerous tumor has not spread to a major organ or tissue, the removal will be a safe and will be successful in most cases. Surgical removal of a cancerous tumor may give people the extra months or years to carry out things they want to do, especially for those people who can not be totally free of cancerous tissue. Surgery to remove a tumor may give people the comfort in which to live out their lives, even though it may not be the complete solution, (Encyclopedia Britannica, p. 541 )

In my own personal case, the surgery that my father received for his brain cancer was undoubtedly the largest factor in preserving his life. The recovery time for such an aggressive surgery is very long and not without its side effects, however it is one of the most powerful weapons in our anti-cancer arsenal. Radiation treatments are normally conducted after surgery if there was a large affected area, or treatments can be used on small tumors when surgery is not possible. Irradiating a large area of the body for a large tumor can create other types of cancer within the body. Treatments can be carried out using gamma rays that are emitted by Cobalt-60, a radioactive element, by focusing high powered X-rays (many times the strength of the normal Xray used to scan the body) or particles (electrons and neutrons). Although some of the surrounding cells are killed in the radiation process, the effect is minimized by shielding surrounding areas with dense materials, such as lead and gold. The source of the radiation and the sensitivity of the tumor are relative to the overall effect on the tumor. If radiation therapy is unsuccessful in the first few treatments, it is unlikely to have any significant impact on the cancer after this stage, and may cause more damage than it does good.

My father also received extensive radiation therapy after his operation. It is often effective, as it was for him, but it is possibly one of the most taxing treatments. My father rose every day at 8am to receive a one hour treatment that would leave him bedridden for the remainder of the day. Chemotherapy is perhaps the most well known of all treatments, it isthe process by which chemicals are administered into the body to fight and destroy cancerous cells and tumors. At present, at least 10 types of human cancer can be treated and cured by chemotherapy alone or in conjunction with surgery and/or radiation, (Britannica, p. 558). Chemotherapy has been proven successful against some strains of cancer such as lymphocytic leukemia in children, Hodgkin’s Disease, sarcomas (connective tissue such as bone and fat) and kidney tumors. Chemotherapy is usually not a complete cure, but has helped to drastically increase the useful lifetime of many patients with these diseases.

There is one major point to note about chemotherapy, and that is that it has been shown that some chemicals used in the treatment of cancer will actually create other forms of cancer, or speed the growth of those already malignant, if dosages or administration of the chemicals is incorrect: Compounds that have been effective in the chemotherapy of human cancer include certain hormones, especially the steroid sex hormones and those from the adrenal cortex; antibiotics produced naturally by a variety of microorganisms; plant alkaloids, including vinblastine and vincristine, derived from the periwinkle flower; alkylating agents–chemicals that react directly with DNA; and antimetabolites, which resemble normal metabolites (metabolic compounds) in structure and compete with them for some metabolic function, thus preventing further utilization of normal metabolic pathways. (Grolier, Cancer) It has also been noted that as chemotherapy damages some of the surrounding tissue around a tumor, chemotherapy can have some serious side effects.

Some patients develop severe nausea and vomiting, become very tired, and lose their hair temporarily. Special drugs are given to alleviate some of these symptoms, particularly the nausea and vomiting, (Compton’s Multimedia Encyclopedia, Cancer – Chemotherapy). While immunotherapy is still a rather new form of treatment, it is looked as having great promise. Immunotherapy is where the body’s own immune system is used to combat the neoplasms situated in the body, with the help of “engineered” antibodies that are added to the patients immune system. The immune system will then replicate the antibody and send it out to destroy any cancerous cells matching the DNA and RNA sequences it was designed to track, while attaching itself to healthy cells to prevent assimilation by cancerous cells. This process has worked on a single-case basis with good results, but it is expected to be a while before its use is wide spread. (How it Works, p. 415)

It has come about recently, that therapies combining less radical forms of surgery, with radiation, chemotherapy and/or preventive medicine have been used: Such therapy has been especially useful in the treatment of breast cancer, where the traditional radical mastectomy, involving removal of the breast, lymph nodes, and parts of the arm and chest muscles is becoming less common. It is being replaced by relatively simple surgery involving removal of only the lump itself or the breast, followed by chemotherapy or the use of preventive drugs. An example of the latter is tamoxifen (a drug my father still takes regularly), an anti-estrogen that prevents the growth of cancer cells with little or no toxicity to the host and remaining normal cells. (Grolier, Cancer) Rehabilitation is an important and ongoing process after having cancer treatment(s) of any kind. The majority of cancers are considered cured if there is no reoccurrence within five years after the last treatment. Other types of cancer are required to be monitored for ten years after treatments to be sure that no reoccurrence is to happen. It is also to be noted that many types of leukemia may seem to be none existent for several years, and then it may appear again.

Also, it is generally harder to treat a reoccurrence such as this than in the original case. Cancer is an elusive and stubborn disease that can be turn up in almost any system of the body. With this in mind, it must be known that there must be a common reason for malignant cancer cells to continue to plague a large percentage of our population: In 1983, for example, U.S. and British researchers determined that at least two genetic changes may be needed to transform cells into cancerous cells under laboratory conditions: one stage enables the cell to grow indefinitely; the other stage enables the cell to ignore signals from surrounding cells that would otherwise halt its growth.

Also, because the means to identify most of the carcinogenic agents in the environment are now available, a major program of cancer prevention is within reach. (Grolier, Cancer) With this theory in mind, it will be relatively easy to control cancer once we are intelligent and wise enough to know how to directly manipulate the DNA sequences in cells, and place that information in the bodies of the patients in question. It will be a glorious day when we can alleviate cancer from this world, or will it?


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