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msnbc.com

The “C” word. While it still has a negative connotation for many, cancer is, in fact, a group of more than 100 different diseases, many of which are now preventable or curable. More people are living with cancer than at any other time. Read on to find out the answers to frequently asked questions about cancer.

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What is cancer?
Cancer is a group of more than 100 different diseases characterized by uncontrolled growth and spread of abnormal cells. If the spread is not controlled, it can result in death.

Normally, cells divide to produce more cells only when the body needs them. If cells divide when new ones are not needed, they form a mass of excess tissue, called a tumor. Tumors can be benign (not cancer) or malignant (cancer). The cells in malignant tumors can invade and damage nearby tissues and organs. Cancer cells can also break away from a malignant tumor and travel through the bloodstream or the lymphatic system to form new tumors in other parts of the body.

What causes cancer?
Cancer is caused by both external (chemicals, radiation and viruses) and internal (hormones, immune conditions and inherited mutations) factors. Causal factors may act together or in a sequence to initiate or promote carcinogenesis. Ten or more years often pass between exposures or mutations and detectable cancer.

What are the signs and symptoms of cancer?
Cancer often causes symptoms that you can watch for. The word CAUTION can remind you of the most common warning signs of cancer:

Change in bowel or bladder habits

A sore that does not heal

Unusual bleeding or discharge

Thickening or lump in the breast or any other part of the body

Indigestion or difficulty swallowing

Obvious change in a wart or mole

Nagging cough or hoarseness

These symptoms are not always warning signs of cancer. They can also be caused by less serious conditions. It is important to see a doctor if you have any of these symptoms. Only a doctor can make a diagnosis. Don’t wait to feel pain because early cancer usually does not cause pain.

A biopsy is the only sure way to know whether a medical problem is cancer. In a biopsy, the doctor removes a sample of tissue. The tissue is examined under a microscope to check for cancer cells.

Can cancer be prevented?
Yes, since some external factors can be controlled. About 90 percent of the 800,000 skin cancers that were diagnosed in 1995 could have been prevented by protection from the sun’s rays. All cancers caused by cigarette smoking and heavy use of alcohol could be prevented completely.

Diets high in fruits, vegetables, and fiber may reduce the incidence of some types of cancers. Regular screening and self-exams can detect cancers of the breast, tongue, mouth, colon, rectum, cervix, prostate, testis and skin at an early stage, when treatment is more likely to be successful. These types of cancers account for more than half of all new cases.

How is a person’s cancer treated?
Cancer is treated with surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, radioactive substances or immunotherapy. The doctor may use one method or a combination of methods. The choice of treatment depends on the type and location of the cancer, whether the disease has spread, the patient’s age and general health, and other factors.

Many cancer patients take part in clinical trials (research studies) testing new treatment methods. Such studies are designed to improve cancer treatment.

Who gets cancer?
Anyone can get cancer. Since incidence rises with age, most cases affect adults in mid-life or older. Among children ages 1 to 14, cancer causes more deaths in the United States than any other disease. In the 1980s, there were more than 4.5 million cancer deaths, almost 9 million new cancer cases, and some 12 million people under medical care for cancer.

How many people alive today have ever had cancer?
More than 8 million Americans alive today have a history of cancer, 5 million diagnosed five or more years ago. Most of these 5 million can be considered cured, while others still have evidence of cancer. “Cured” means that a patient has no evidence of disease and has the same life expectancy as a person who never had cancer.

How many people will die?
This year about 560,000 will die of cancer - more than 1,500 people a day. One out of every five deaths in the United States is from cancer.

What is the national cancer death rate?
There has been a steady rise in the cancer mortality rate in the United States in the last half-century. The major cause of this increase has been lung cancer. But starting from 1990 to 1995, the death rate declined by 3 percent and this trend is expected to continue into the next century. Death rates for many major cancer sites has leveled off or declined over the past 50 years. If lung cancer deaths were excluded, cancer mortality would have declined 14 percent between 1950 and 1990.

How many people are surviving cancer?
In the early 1900s, few cancer patients had any hope of long-term survival. In the 1930s, fewer than one in five victims were alive five years after treatment. In the 1940s, it was one in four, and in the 1960s, one in three. Currently, about 500,000 Americans, or four of 10 patients who get cancer will be alive five years after diagnosis.

Information compiled from The Cancer Information Service, a program of the National Cancer Institute, and the American Cancer Society.

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