Friday, December 23, 2011

Cancer 101- A Basic, General Overview

Cancer is responsible for over 500,000 deaths every year in the United States, second only to heart disease. Many of us in the community have had direct exposure to this disease, either through first hand personal experience or through those shared with close friends or relatives.

The word “cancer” itself can be incredibly scary, but it is important to know that with modern treatments, many patients, especially those whose cancers are caught early, can be cured. In this article, I wanted to briefly talk about cancer and some of the major treatments for it.

Our body’s cells are created and ultimately die as part of a regular cycle of life. Normal functioning of this life cycle is extremely important for our day to day living. For example, when our skin gets cut or scraped, the skin cells will quickly grow to form a scab and heal the damaged area. After this area has finished healing, these cells will stop growing.

Sometimes (for reasons we don’t completely understand), some cells in our body continue to grow unnecessarily. These cells can keep growing and form growths, or tumors. These can stay in one place and continue to grow larger, or they can even spread to other parts of the body.

Many of these tumors can be picked up on screening exams like mammograms, prostate blood tests, or colonoscopies. At this point, a surgeon can go in and take a piece of the tumor (a biopsy) and have the pathologist look at it under the microscope.

If the pathologist feels the tumor is malignant, the patient will undergo further testing to see if the tumor has spread (staging workup). Since cancer comes in many different types, depending on what organ it grows from, there is no one correct way to treat. Each treatment plan should be developed for each individual.

The surgeon will often send the patient to a “chemo doctor” (medical oncologist) and a “radiation doctor” (radiation oncologist) prior to performing any surgery.

Chemo doctors, or medical oncologists, specialize in giving chemotherapy, very strong drugs that are delivered through the veins. These drugs then travel through the blood to the entire body. The goal of chemotherapy is to kill cells that are visible on CT or MRI scans as well as the invisible tiny cells that may have spread to other areas of the body.

Radiation doctors specialize in giving radiation therapy, or very strong x-rays, that are shot into the tumor and surrounding areas to kill the cancer cells. Radiation is generally given only to a small area of the body, and generally does not affect areas outside of where it is given.

These doctors will get together as a team to figure out the best way to treat. Though oncologists do follow national treatment guidelines, we take in to account that each patient is unique, and will adjust our treatments based on things like the patient’s age, physical and emotional condition, and even things like social and family support.

At MD Anderson Sugar Land, our treatment team also includes nurses, dieticians, as well as social workers to make sure that our patients are well taken care of during what is often a very difficult and stressful time in their lives.

After the course of treatment is done, all the physicians will continue to followup with the patients at regular intervals to make sure that they are both recovering well after their treatment, and to make sure that their tumor has not returned.

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