Cancer is when a group of cells alter their composition so that they begin to multiply much faster than normal cells. This may cause no problem to surrounding tissue and the clump itself may be quite self-contained and relatively stable. In other cases the resulting clump of abnormal cells can crowd out normal cells so that function is impaired and symptoms experienced, and the cells themselves may start to mutate and cause unpleasant problems in the body. If left unchecked, cancer is often fatal. Currently 1 in 4 people in the Western world experience cancer at some time in their lives, although not all of these will be malignant or life-threatening.
How is cancer treated?
There are a number of different techniques available to treat cancer. They are more effective and generally cause less side-effects than they did even 10 years ago. Conventional treatments include:
Surgery to remove a cancerous growth may be done if the tumour is very compact and in one distinct area, if the risks of giving high doses of radiation to the tumour are high because of its position (around or next to the spinal cord, for example), or if the tumour is very large. Remaining cancer cells will then usually be mopped up afterwards with chemotherapy and/radiotherapy. Surgery may also be used as a palliative technique (to make more comfortable) as well as a cure, for example in a case where a tumour is pressing on nerves causing pain.
Treatment using controlled doses of high-energy rays to kill cancer cells. Radiotherapy is usually given as an external beam, with the patient lying or sitting in front of a machine. The dose is usually split in a number of daily doses over a period of weeks so that side effects are minimised by giving the normal cells a chance to recover. Normal cells are generally able to repair themselves following radiation, but cancer cells are less able to do so, which means they get progressively weaker as treatment continues. Possible side effects include tiredness and problems with the tissue in the surrounding area – so hair loss if the brain is being treated, for example, diarrhoea if the abdomen is being treated, and infertility and early menopause if a woman’s pelvis is being treated (the ovaries can rarely be adequately protected if the pelvic area needs to be treated, although ova may be able to be stored in some cases).
Other methods for delivering radiation include internal radiation, when a natural source of radiation is placed inside the body, next to or actually inside the cancer tumour, for a short period of time. This treatment gives a very precise dosage, although the individual is mildly radioactive during (but not after) treatment and precautions to protect others must be taken. Internal radiotherapy is most often used to treat breast or cervical cancer. Radiotherapy can also be given as a drink or injection when the cancerous tissue will readily absorb the carrier fluid. The classic case is cancer of the thyroid, when the radiotherapy is delivered in iodine, which the thyroid gland will readily absorb. The individual is mildly radioactive during treatment and for a few days afterwards, and precautions to protect other people need to be taken.
Literally, treatment using drugs, chemotherapy is generally used to mean treatment using drugs that destroy cancer cells. Chemotherapy works by interfering with the cancer cells ability to reproduce. Unfortunately, because cancer cells are very similar to normal cells, it is not possible to give chemotherapy without causing some damage to normal cells. However, like radiotherapy, chemotherapy is given in small doses over the course of a few days, followed by a break of several weeks. This allows the normal cells to recover, but because cancer cells are defective, most will be unable to mend themselves. It has to be said, however, that some tumours are resistant to one or more drugs, which means that combinations may be used to try and kill the growth. This can lead to increased side effects. Chemotherapy drugs do have a bad reputation as until relatively recently they usually caused quite severe side effects, such as nausea, vomiting, hair loss, and susceptibility to infections because of damage to the bone marrow (where the red and white blood cells are produced). Luckily these effects have been much reduced, and many people go through treatment without any major problems. If problems do occur, you should tell the staff immediately – something can nearly always be done to help.
Bone marrow or stem cell transplant
Primarily used in the treatment of leukaemia and lymphoma, this technique has greatly improved since the mid-1980s. Nowadays, few people are given an actual bone marrow transplant, especially from a donor, although it does still happen in some cases. It is much more common for the individual with cancerous bone marrow to be stimulated (using drugs) to produce many fresh new stem cells (cells in the bone marrow from which blood cells are produced), which then spill over in to the blood. They can then be collected very easily, as opposed to having to do a major operation to collect bone marrow from a large bone, such as the hip. The stem cells are then injected back in to the blood once chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy has finished.
How can I help myself?
* Stop smoking – smoking is a known cause of cancer, and smoking decreases your chances of getting well.
* Eat well – eat a good, nourishing, well-balanced and predominantly wholefood diet.
* Listen to your body – if your body needs to rest, then do so. Fighting fatigue will slow your progress, especially during treatment.
* Get support and information – see below.