Cancer: Myth, Mystery or Monster?

    Cancer is one of the most dreaded diseases which took its toll in later part of 20th century. Although the historical account of various diseases which found no understanding can now be attributed to cancer in retrospect, but the recent surge in the number of cases of this dreadful disease seems to be attributed to the better understanding of the disease.

    I, personally, have come across hundreds of patients with various cancers through my medical career and I have seen the bewildering feeling of patients and their relatives about the disease. Sitting in an out-patients department, treating patients is never the best way to tell masses and answer to the questions of most of them. Through this article, I hope, I am able to answer most questions one has in one’s mind and give a concise knowledge of when and how to seek help.

    First and foremost: What is Cancer?

    Each and every disease has an origin, a pathology, which works to create the disease and flourish in the patient’s body. The causes can be infections (which are more common in developing countries), accident and trauma, poisonous substances (like in cases of food poisoning, snake bites), genetic disturbances (the basic foundation of one’s body), etc. Cancer is well understood and has specific causes. These causes are the targets for the recent treatment strategies developed.

    Our body, each and every part including every bit of skin, bone, flesh and organs, are made of numerous building blocks called ‘Cell’. These are the smallest living units in our body which make the whole body function. Imagine a car, made of numerous of nuts and screws, pistons, other metallic and fibre parts to make it one single unit, which runs as one. Our body is similar, made up of millions of such units and much (much) more complex. Now there is a constant wear and tear, leaving many cells damaged and worn out. Our body keeps them in balance by creating new cells to replace them, each cell produced by the parent cell by division, better known as cell replication.

    Now it’s an equilibrium → Input = Output, i.e. number of building blocks (cells) getting damaged equals building blocks being produced

    Now what will happen if it is not equal? If damage is more, it will lead to body wearing out leading to critical low when ‘Death’ ensues.

    On the other hand, if production is more than damage, there is more and more collection and clumping of these cells. There will be numerous cells collected at one place, leading to what we call as TUMOUR. Now, since the production machinery had been working fast and uncontrolled, the output may not perfect. These tumorous cells may be functionally useless.

    The production of these cells are controlled by genetic setup, the DNA. This is the most common site of damage by various causes of cancers, the change in DNA codes thus lead to the uncontrolled cell replication.

    What is the difference between Cancer and Tumour?

    Cancer and tumour are used synonymously by most. Well, tumour is any space occupying lesion in any tissue of the body. It may be cancerous or non-cancerous. Cancer is the unstoppable growth of any part of any organ. But not all cancers are bad. They may range from small and very slow growing to very large and dreadful lesion. The difference brings in the different treatment approaches.

    Where can cancer occur in my body?

    Cancer can virtually occur in any part of body. They may grow in skin, eyes, heart, lungs, liver, stomach or any other part. There are thousands of varieties of tumours, the detailed discussion of which is even difficult for most trained doctors as well. There are various cancers possible in our blood as well.

    What are the causes of cancers?

    Cancers have many causes and factors leading to them. Though many are not very well defined, a few are very closely associated with some dreadful cancers and are named as such:

    • Smoking and tobacco use – Smoking is a very big insult to our body. It has a proven role in several cancers, common ones include lung cancer, cancers of digestive tract starting from food pipe till anus, cancer of liver, pancreas and kidneys among many more.
    • Alcohol – Alcohol in moderation isn’t too bad. Doctors will not say no till it is in moderation and you don’t drive or work with machineries while drunk. But, most people can’t stop themselves at moderation. Heavy alcohol burns out our liver and can further lead to its cancer. It also damages several other digestive organs.
    • Drug abuse – Injectable drugs are one of the most common cause of infections like Hepatitis B & C and HIV. While former two are the most common cause of liver cancers, latter is a common cause of several other disorders which may further lead to several cancers.
    • Exposure to radiation – This leads to several cancers which include blood, thyroid, breast etc.
    • Genetic – There are several cancers which have been seen to run in families. Good thing is that these cancers are uncommon.
    • Lifestyle habits – The recent changes in food habits in 21st century have led to origin of several cancers. High fat diet, low in fibres, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals and low physical activity are major factors. Obesity is the epidemic of the present and future which has multiple deleterious effects.

    What are signs and symptoms of cancer?

    Cancer may occur with absolutely no symptoms. It is probably the cause why it is difficult to detect many cancers at earlier stage. Early symptoms can be as non-specific as fatigue, weakness, loss of appetite, unexplained weight loss and lethargy. Tumours occurring in outer body parts may be felt as a nodule, growth or difference to the normal texture. Lung cancers may present as cough, phlegm production, low grade fever, breathing difficulty and blood in sputum, especially in chronic smokers. Rectum and large intestinal cancers cause blood in faeces, prolonged constipation or diarrhoea, more common in older age. On the other hand, cancers of food pipe and stomach may present with recurrent bloating, vomiting which may be bloody and inability to eat.

    Knowing these basic signs and symptoms are important. You should consult a physician at the earliest if you have the above features. There are routine screening programs for the common cancers. These included-

    • Yearly mammography for women above 35 years of age to detect breast cancer at an early stage.
    • Routine colonoscopy in older individuals every two yearly or preferably yearly.
    • Pap smear from female cervix to detect cervical cancer which is very common in Indian setting.
    • Smear from inside of uterus (endometrial aspirate) to detect uterine cancers.


    One thing to know is – Cancer is a disease which is very much treatable. High level of vigilance and faith in the modern medicine is very important for the best results.

    Many people have questions regarding the various treatment options for cancers. I will deal with the treatment options in my future posts and tell you more about chemotherapy and radiotherapy, the two things most people are worried about.

    Be healthy, be wise, live long and prosperous!!!

    Saurabh Singhal
    Saurabh Singhal
    Saurabh is a surgeon who has completed his MS from AIIMS, a reputed medical school of India. One of the founders of Zigverve. Occasionally drumming for the band Alexithyme. Desires to help people keep themselves fit and healthy, and thus doing his bit in the direction through Zigverve.

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