what is cancer

Cancer (from the Greek word, “karkinos,” crab) was originally named by the ancient Greek physician, Hippocrates. No one quite knows why, since he thought cancer was the result of too much black bile. Perhaps because of its hardness, like the shell of a crab. In the 3rd Century, Galen described how its extensions were like the legs of a crab, going out in all directions. Another Hippocratic term, “onkos” (mass), has survived to label cancer specialists “oncologists.” The reason this introduction is helpful is because cancer, as a disease, is based primarily on classification. Regardless, it is tissue which has unchecked cell growth, either by uncontrolled cell division or by refusal of cells to die. It is thought to be caused by genetic mutations in a cell which eliminates these constraints.


What are the different kinds of cancer?

  1. Carcinoma—among others, there are: Squamous cell and basal cell carcinoma—skin, and Adenoma, from gland cells—intestines, breast, etc.
  2. Sarcoma
  3. Lymphoma and Leukemia


As a fetus, there are three types of cell layers that end up making up a person. As above, there are three main types of cancer, subdivided according to the type of original fetal tissue involved.

The endoderm lines the inside of organs and the ectoderm lines the outside of organs. Cancers arising from tissue lining—inside and outside—are called carcinomas. They include breast, skin, lung, and intestinal cancers.

The mesoderm—mucus-like or fluid-like embryonic tissue, gives rise to things like bones, connective tissue, cartilage, fat, muscle, cartilage, and blood-making tissues. Cancers arising from mesoderm are called sarcomas. The mesoderm also results in the blood-making tissue, so these cells are responsible for the cancers called lymphoma and leukemia (from lymphatic cells and blood cells, respectively).

Most cancers are carcinomas.


Why is cancer so difficult to cure?

Because it is a genetic redesign, which ultimately affects the cancer cell’s ability to stop growing or even to die, simply removing the cluster of tumor cells may not work. For one thing, removing the entire cancer may be difficult, because sometimes it’s hard to tell where the cancer ends and normal tissue begins. Another reason is that individual cells, impossible to see or identify, may have gotten circulated to elsewhere in the body (called a metastasis, or metastatic), establishing a colony that is undetected until too late.


Does cancer do more than just live? or occupy space? Can’t we all just get along?

Precisely because of living and occupying space, cancer is a killer. Like a weed that chokes off the flower, it competes for nutrients, so while it has first dibs on what you need, you become a distant second in the pecking order, withering away. (Such weight loss and general debilitation is called cachexia.) And the space it occupies is space you will miss. For example, a tumor in the brain can crowd out normal nerve cells, even crushing them. Lung cancer can take the place of normal cells needed to take in oxygen. An intestinal cancer can obstruct this passageway.


What are ways doctors fight cancer?

There are two basic approaches:

  1. Kill it by surgically removing it, burning it away with radiation, or poisoning it.
  2. Stop the cancer process itself.

Surgery is self-explanatory; stopping the process itself involves mucking about with its genes that give it its trouble-making characteristics. Radiation is based on dosing the radiation such that the cancer is more sensitive to the radiation exposure than the normal tissue around it.

Poisoning it means killing it with toxins before the toxins kill the person. Below is a table that lists some oral anti-cancer medications. They either interfere with cancer cell growth by blocking certain enzymes the cell needs to live and spread, counteract the cells hormonally, or alter your immune system attack on cancer.

Some oral anti-cancer medications:


Brand Name

Generic Name

How it works



Affects the growth of cancer


An anti-androgen

Opposes the male hormones that make prostate cancer grow.


An anti-androgen

Opposes the male hormones that make prostate cancer grow.



A selective estrogen receptor modulator in that it blocks estrogen by filling the estrogen receptor, giving some benefits estrogen would give while not acting like a cancer-enhancer that estrogen can be.



Inhibits the growth of cancer cells



Chemotherapy and immune cell suppressant.



Blocks enzyme processes in cancer cells



Interferes with cancer growth and spread



Interferes with cancer growth and spread


What are the side effects of cancer treatment?

Remembering that the strategy to kill the cancer tissue instead of your tissue is one that affects all human tissue, it is no cakewalk. It’s a rough ride. Appetite, “brain fog,” weight loss, fatigue, and defeatist mood swings are common. When people beat cancer, they can also boast that they survived the treatment. Since life is well worth living, it is an effort worth the investment.


Who are the specialists involved in treating cancer patients?

Because of the special needs of someone with cancer, the following specialists will be involved:

  • Oncologist—the primary doctor and air-traffic control tower for the others
  • Dietitian/nutritionist—because of the nutrition needs in an environment of pseudostarvation
  • Radiation oncologist—if radiation is used
  • Hematologist—the oncologist for lymphomas and leukemias and the consultant for the various anemias caused by chemotherapy
  • Surgeon—if surgery is done
  • Internal medicine doctor—for illnesses associated with a suppressed immune system
  • Infectious disease specialist—for unusual infections due to a suppressed immune system


Who survives cancer? Anyone?

Yes! Although cancer used to be an automatic death sentence, today we have made great strides in treating them and even beaten many of them; yet many are still fatal. Your oncologist can give you the statistics on survival for any stage of cancer and for the medications or radiation used to treat it. “5-year survival” is the benchmark used to be considered a cure.


When the secrets of cancer arrest and eradication are solved, there will be a bonus—life extension for everyone, because the two disciplines (cancer growth and anti-aging) both rely on the properties of cells, whether normal or cancerous, to live on, possibly forever. When that happens, it will be tempting to think of cancer as the gift that helped the human race live forever, and that’s just steeped irony.

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