Back-to-school season is a good time to review the basics about cancer: how it forms, the differences between types of tumors and other fundamentals. Discover more about these topics and how they relate to pancreatic cancer.
How Does Cancer Start?
Cancer begins within one cell in the body. Cells are the body’s basic units of life. Each cell carries genetic information in the form of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). DNA provides the necessary instructions for the proper growth and function of each cell within the body.
Normally, cells divide to form new cells as the body needs them. When cells grow old, they die, and new cells take their place.
Sometimes this process breaks down due to a mutation, or change, in the cell’s DNA. A mutation can either be inherited or acquired throughout life.
And, a mutation could cause new cells to form when the body does not need them or may prevent old cells from dying. The extra cells may form a mass of tissue called a tumor, which could be benign or malignant.
What Are Benign and Malignant Tumors?
Benign tumors are made up of abnormal cells that do not have the ability to invade other parts of the body or spread to other organs. However, if a benign tumor is big enough, its size and weight can cause problems as it can put pressure on nearby blood vessels, nerves or organs.
Malignant tumors are referred to as cancer. They are characterized by uncontrolled cell division and the ability to invade other tissues and organs. Pancreatic cancer begins when abnormal cells within the pancreas grow out of control and form a tumor.
What Is Metastasis?
Metastasis is when a cancer cell breaks away from the original cancer site (also referred to as the primary tumor) and forms a new tumor in other parts of the body.
When pancreatic cancer metastasizes outside the pancreas, it forms secondary tumors in other tissues or organs. Common sites for secondary pancreatic tumors include the lymph nodes, liver, peritoneum and lungs. Because the cancer cells in these other locations originated in the pancreas, they are still considered and treated as pancreatic cancer.
What Is Cancer Staging?
The stage of cancer refers to how large the tumor is and if it has spread.
The stage is determined by diagnostic tests such as CT scans, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or other lab tests.
How Is Cancer Treated?
Cancer treatment is based on the stage of the disease. For example, surgery is typically only available to patients whose tumor is confined to its original location, like the pancreas.
Chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy may be used for many types of cancer, at varying stages of the disease. Surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy are considered “standard” cancer treatments.
Other types of cancer treatment include targeted therapies, where a drug is designed to stop the activity of a specific mutation or protein that is causing the cancer. Immunotherapy harnesses the patient’s own immune system to recognize and attack cancer cells.
Patients may also participate in clinical trials, which provide access to new and innovative treatment approaches.
For more information about cancer in general, visit the National Cancer Institute.