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Cancer: The Basics

Cancer: the basics

Cancer is one of scariest and most widely-discussed diagnoses going, but what exactly is it?

Usually deriving from just one abnormal cell, “cancer” is the name given to any malignant, abnormal growth of cells. A cancer is able to promote the growth of new blood vessels from which the cancer cells can derive nutrients. Because the cells have lost their normal control mechanisms, they are able to multiply continuously, invade nearby tissues and migrate to distant parts of the body. Any tissue within the body can develop malignant (cancerous) cells.

Cancer can be caused by any number of different factors. Getting sunburned, for instance, can increase your risk of skin cancer. Getting all the vitamin D you need from sunlight is important, but you need to know how to balance this with sun safety to avoid damaging your skin. Getting a tan is not something you can do in a safe and healthy way – there will always be a risk of sunburn.

In the short term, a sunburn can also cause a great deal of discomfort and misery, and really put a damper on summer holidays. And sunburn is something that can happen even

if it’s cloudy, and even when you’re in the UK. Holidays in sunny Spain aren’t the only place you can be burned! The harmful effects of the sun pose a real threat, even if you’re naturally tanned.

Invading and destroying normal adjacent tissues, the cancerous cells that can form as a result of sunburn will grow and multiply. They form a mass of cancerous tissue called a tumour. Any abnormal growth or mass can be referred to as a tumour. Not all tumours are cancerous, but some are. Knowing whether or not your tumour is cancerous is vital, as a cancerous tumour’s cells can metastasize, spreading throughout the body.

Cancer Types

Cancer is often used to describe solid masses of cells that form “solid” tumours, but malignancies (cancerous tissues) can also form in the blood and blood-forming tissues (leukemias and lymphomas). Solid tumours can be further divided into sarcomas and carcinomas.

Cells of the immune system, blood and blood-forming tissues can develop cancers called leukemia and lymphoma. The production of normal blood cells in the bone marrow can be prohibited by leukemias, which arise from blood-forming cells. Large masses can form in the chest, armpits, groin or abdomen as a result of lymphoma cancer cells, which expand lymph nodes.

The cells that line the internal organs, skin, lungs and digestive tract can develop cancers called carcinomas. Cancer of the thyroid gland, skin, pancreas, colon, stomach, breasts and prostate are all examples of carcinomas. Younger people are less prone to carcinomas than older groups, but anyone can get them.

Cancers that form in the mesodermal cells are known as sarcomas. These are cancers of the connective tissues, cartilage, blood vessels and bone. Bone cancer (osteosarcoma) and cancer in fatty tissues (liposarcoma) are two examples of sarcomas. Unlike carcinomas, sarcomas are more common in younger people.

Talking about Cancer

When discussing cancer, you’re likely to hear some of the following terms…

Aggressiveness: How quickly (or how much) a tumour is growing and spreading.

Anaplasia: Cancer cells that don’t look like healthy cells of the same tissue type. These are often very aggressive.

Basal cell carcinoma: Found in the skin’s outermost layer, this is the most common type of cancer.

Benign: Not cancerous. A benign tumour can cause problems, but won’t spread or invade nearby tissues.

Skin Cancer: Think Sun Safety

A child’s risk of developing skin cancer later in life may be increased if they are exposed to too much sun in childhood or infancy. If your baby is under the age of six months, they should never be exposed to strong, direct sunlight. Between the months of March and October, children in the UK should really have their skin protected from the sun.

Key Tips for Sun Safety

It’s best to stay in the shade when the sun is at its strongest. Be sure to…

  • Avoid direct sunlight between 11:00 and 15:00;
  • Use sunscreen that’s at least factor 15;
  • Make sure you never burn.

The sun is generally strongest between 11AM and 3PM in the UK, especially between March and October. You can protect yourself and your loved one by making sure everyone has appropriate clothing and sunglasses. Children won’t necessarily understand why they’re being made to cover up when it’s so nice outside, so make sure they are supervised to keep them safe.

Who is most at risk?

Reduce the risk of ill health from heat by planning ahead. If you’re spending time with someone who might be more at risk of sunburn or other heat-related issues than you are, try to take their needs into consideration at all times. The following groups are at increased risk of serious harm from the effects of heat:

  • People with heart and respiratory issues and other serious chronic conditions;
  • People who engage in high levels of physical activity, such as athletes and manual labourers;
  • Babies and young children;
  • Sick people who have a fever;
  • Elderly people, especially those aged 75 and over.

Anyone can fall victim to heat, though some groups are at greater risk of serious harm than others. Pay attention to the weather forecast to find out how hot the next few days are going to be.

Without protection, it can take as little as 15 minutes for the sun’s UV (ultraviolet) rays to damage your skin. Don’t wait until you feel like you need a break from the sun to find shade. You can reduce your risk of skin damage and cancer by seeking shade under a shelter, parasol or tree. You can also protect yourself from UV rays by wearing long-sleeved shirts and long trousers and skirts when possible. The best protection comes from clothes made from tightly woven fabric.

For more information about skin cancer, check out Need2Know’s Essential Guide to Skin Cancer which provides expert advice and the latest research on sun safety and the treatment of skin cancer. Need2Know also have some great books about prostate cancer, testicular cancer and breast cancer. Whether you’re newly diagnosed, caring for a friend or just curious, we have all the information you need!

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