What is Cancer – Complete Overview About Cancers and How to Cope Up With Someone Who Has it?

What you need to know to support family and friends who got cancers

Cancers, Doesn’t this term scare us all?
It surely does. Out of every two men and out of every three women will be diagnosed with cancer, and the number of new cases of cancer is set to nearly double by the year 2050, but despite all this and the vast numbers, some of us are unaware; of what Cancer means? What are its types, and how it affects our health?

Cancer is second on the list of leading causes of mortality in the United States and worldwide leading to 10 million deaths in 2020. 

The history of Cancers dates back to the Edwin Smith Papyrus, which dates from 1600 B.C., has the oldest account of cancer. The paper discusses the removal of breast tumors using a technique known as the fire drill.


Cancer is a broad word that refers to various illnesses created when abnormal cells proliferate fast and spread to other tissues and organs. At the simplest, cancer is the disorder that develops when the cells of our body grow out of control, creating a mass of unhealthy cells. Healthy cells have a distinct life cycle, replicating and dying off according to the cell type. As old or damaged cells die, new ones replace them. But in cancers, this whole thing gets messed up due to mutations, either man-made or genetically. Cancer disturbs this mechanism, resulting in aberrant cell proliferation. DNA alterations or mutations cause it.

According to the statistic of, almost 1.9 million new cancer cases in the US are expected to be diagnosed in 2021.



Our body is composed of millions and trillions of highly specialized cells. Each of these cells carries genes and are responsible for different function like growth and division. This whole process occurs in an orderly manner. But when the genetic component gets changed, the cells lose control over their division process, and these cells might grow and divide uncontrollably, forming the lump of undesirable cells.

The genetic changes caused by cancers usually occur in three types of genes: the Proto-oncogenes, a normal cellular gene. Many proto-oncogenes exist, performing their usual task of division and growth. Most of the time, these genes operate correctly, but occasionally things go wrong. A proto-mutation might lead it to turn on when it shouldn’t. The proto-oncogene then becomes an oncogene, a malfunctioning gene. And this uncontrolled cell division generates tumors.

The second type is Tumor suppressor genes, which are normally functioning genes that regulate cell division, correct DNA abnormalities, and signal cells to expire (a process known as apoptosis or programmed cell death). When tumor suppressor genes are defective, cells can proliferate out of control, resulting in cancer.

The third one is the DNA repair genes. These genes correct errors that occur during DNA replication. If a person’s DNA repair gene is defective, errors stay unchecked. Then, the errors evolve into mutations. These mutations may eventually form cancers and tumors, in tumor suppressor genes or oncogenes.

WHAT IS A TUMOR?normal cell division for cancers

Every uncontrolled cell division forming a lump or a mass is referred to as a tumor, but can every tumor be cancerous? The answer is no. The tumors are classified into two major types, which are as follows;

  • Benign Tumors: As already told, some cells lose their ability to divide in an orderly manner then form tumors. But after a particular time, this tumor doesn’t grow much in size and remains calm at its place. It does not spread around with the blood to invade the surrounding tissues. These quiet, harmless, and non-cancerous tumors are called begin tumors. They are usually not problematic.
  • Malignant TumorsOn the other hand, some tumors spread to the surrounding areas and organs via the bloodstream, invading them. Their aggressive nature helps them to derive nutrients from surrounding cells that are healthy. As a result, the healthy cells die, giving the malignant ones more chance to grow faster. And that is why they are cancerous.

Malignancy is a form that has spread from the location where it initially originated to another place in the body is called metastatic cancer. The process through which cancer cells move to other sites of the body is called metastasis. Metastases are the primary cause of death from cancer.


Types of cancer

Cancers are named based on where they originate and the type of cell formed, even if they spread to other body parts. For example, cancer that develops in the lungs and travels to the liver is still called lung cancer.

Numerous clinical words are used to describe particular forms of cancer:

Types Carcinomas Sarcomas Leukemia Lymphoma & Myelomas Melanoma Brain and Spinal Cord  tumors
  • Description
Type that develops in epithelial tissues and the tissues that line organs Type that develops in connective tissues Cancer that develops in the bone marrow Type that develops in the immune system.

Myeloma is the type that occurs in plasma cells.

Cancer that develops in Melanocytes ( pigmented cells) Brain and spinal cord cancers come in several forms
  • Location
Skin, tissue lining of organs Bones, muscles, cartilage, and blood vessels Bone marrow Blood cells Skin and eyes mostly Central Nervous system


According to the American Cancer Society, In 2021, the most prevalent cancers were diagnosed in men and women. Prostate, lung, and bronchus (lung hereafter), and colorectal cancers (CRCs) account for 46% of male incident cases, with prostate cancer accounting for 26% of diagnoses. Breast cancer, lung cancer, and colorectal cancer account for 50% of all new diagnoses in women, with breast cancer alone accounting for 30% of female cancers.

cancers prevalence among men and women
Pic Courtesy: ACS journals

According to worldwide statistics, WHO mentioned the following cancers to be recognized accordingly:

Cancers stats worldwide
Cancer worldwide stats: Pic courtesy by WHO
Cancer  Total No. of Cases  Percentage Number of deaths  Percentage of death 
Breast  2,261,419 11.7 684,996 6.9%
Lung 2,206,771 11.4 1,796,144 18%
Prostate  1,414,259 7.3 375,304 3.8%
Colon 1,148,515 6 576,858 5.8%
Stomach 1,089,103 5.6 768,793 7.7%
Liver  905,677 4.7 830,180 8.3%
Rectum 732,210 3.8 339,022 3.2%
Cervix 604,127 3.1 341,831 3.4%
Esophagus 604,100 3.1 544,076 5.5%
Thyroid 586,202 3 43,646 0.4%
Bladder 573,278 3 212,536 2.1%
Pancreas 495,773 2.6 466,003 4.7%
Leukemia 474,519 2.5 311,594 3.1%
Kidney 431,288 2.2 179,368 1.8%
Lip & Oral cavity 377,713 2 177,757 1.8%
Melanoma of skin 324,635 1.7 57,043 0.6%
Ovary 313,959 1.6 207,252 2.1%
Brain, nervous system 308,102 1.6 251,329 2.5%
Gallbladder 115,949 0.6 84,695 0.9%
Vagina 17,908 0.1 7995 0.1%


Cancer does not have a single identifiable cause. Scientists believe that the interaction of several different factors causes cancer. Genetic, environmental, or lifestyle characteristics of the individual may all play a role in the process. They can be extrinsic or intrinsic factors as follows:


  • DNA Mutations. Cancer is directly linked to changes (or mutations) in your DNA.  Over 90% of cancers are found to have some form of genetic abnormality. Cancer cells exhibit a more significant number of genetic mutations than normal cells. However, each person’s cancer is unique due to the combination of genetic mutations. Some of these changes may be secondary to cancer rather than primary. Additional modifications will occur as cancer progresses. Even within the same tumor, cancer cells can exhibit a variety of genetic mutations.
  • Age. Yes, unfortunately. Except for a few, most cancers can be linked back to a person’s age. Cancer can target anyone at any age. However, as we age, the majority of cancers become more prevalent. This is because our cells can become damaged over time. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) reports that the median patient age at cancer diagnosis is 66. 60% of cancer patients are 65 or older. One-quarter of new cancer cases occur in people aged 65 to 74. And the most common cancers affect the elderly.
  • Hereditary Cancers.  An individual can inherit a predisposition to developing a specific type of cancer. A small change (called a mutation) in a gene can be passed down through generations. This gene mutation increases the risk of certain cancers. But Only about 5%–10% of all cancers are completely hereditary. Breast, Colon, Prostate, Ovarian, Uterine, Melanoma, and Pancreatic Cancer are some cancers that may also have a hereditary predisposition.


  • Smoking. Tobacco use is a major cause of cancer and death, leading up to 25–30% of total cases of cancers in the USA. Individuals who use tobacco products or are regularly exposed to environmental tobacco smoke (also known as secondhand smoke) face an increased risk of cancer due to the presence of numerous chemicals that damage DNA. According to 2014 data, over 480,000 Americans die each year from smoking. Tobacco use has been linked to a variety of cancers, including lung, larynx (voice box), mouth, esophagus, throat, bladder, kidney, liver, stomach, pancreas, colon, and rectal cancers, as well as cervix cancer. Want to learn more about smoking and what to do if you are a smoker? Read our article here.
  • Obesity. It may increase the risk of developing several types of cancer, including breast cancer (postmenopausal), colon, rectum, endometrium (uterine lining), esophagus, kidney, pancreas, and gallbladder cancer, accounting for up to 10–20% of total cases in the USA.
  • Carcinogenic Compounds. Certain compounds are labeled as cancer-causing, also known as carcinogenic. These exposures can be chemicals, like chemicals in tobacco smoke, or radiation, like UV rays from the sun. However, a substance’s classification as a carcinogen does not always imply that it will cause cancer. Numerous factors, including the amount and duration of exposure and the individual’s genetic makeup, influence whether an individual exposed to a carcinogen develops cancer. According to the National Toxicology Program’s 14th Report on Carcinogens, the list of carcinogens to affect human health can be seen.
  • Diet. Numerous studies have been conducted to determine whether specific dietary components or nutrients are associated with an increased or decreased risk of cancer as it has been associated with 10-15% of cancers directly or indirectly. Scientists have studied many additives, nutrients, and other dietary components for possible associations with cancer risk. These include: Acrylamide, Alcohol, Charred meat (High-temperature cooking of meat produces carcinogenic chemicals called heterocyclic amines (HCAs), which are rendered as carcinogens.
  • Alcohol. Cancer risk is massively increased for those who consume alcohol and also use tobacco. The more alcohol you consume, the greater your risk. Alcohol consumption increases the risk of developing mouth, throat, esophagus, larynx, liver, and breast cancers. Check out this article for alcohol’s damaging effects to your health besides causing cancers.
  • Immunosuppression. Anyone who takes immunosuppressive medications faces an increased risk of developing skin cancer over time. The four most common cancers among transplant recipients are non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) and lung, kidney, and liver cancers. Cancers like lung cancer are also linked to HIV infection.
  • Radiations. Ionizing radiation is a type of radiation that damages DNA and causes cancer. Ionizing radiation includes radon, x-rays, and gamma rays. In general, the risk of cancer from radiation exposure increases as the dose of radiation increases. UV radiation is emitted by the sun, sunlamps, and tanning booths and is the cause of premature skin aging and damage that can lead to skin cancers.
  • Certain Infectious Agents. Viruses, bacteria, and parasites can cause or increase the risk of cancer. The viral mechanism that controls cell growth and proliferation can be disrupted. A compromised immune system makes it difficult to fight off other cancer-causing infections. Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV), Chronic HBV/HCV, HIV, Human papillomavirus (HPV) are a few viruses that can lead to cancer formation upon chronic stages.


Cancer is not always life-threatening – especially with the medical advancements made in recent decades. While cancer incidence is increasing, more people are surviving cancer than ever before in many countries. The American Cancer Society reports that the total cancer death rate decreased by 26% between 1991 and 2015.  Worldwide, there are 28 million cancer survivors.


Cancer is the primary cause of mortality and a severe hindrance to improving life expectancy in every country on Earth. But between 30% and 50% of cancers are currently preventable by avoiding risk factors and implementing now available evidence-based prevention strategies.


Early detection and treatment of cancer can reduce mortality. While screening tests can aid in the early detection of malignancies, you should always be on the lookout for disease symptoms. We need to follow recommended cancer early-detection procedures and be aware of warnings.  The American Cancer Society created this clear and simple reminder:

  • C: Change in bowel or bladder habits
  • A: A sore that does not heal
  • U: Unusual bleeding or discharge
  • T: Thickening or lump in the breast or elsewhere
  • I: Indigestion or difficulty in swallowing
  • O: Obvious change in a wart or mole
  • N: Nagging cough or hoarseness

It’s only a guide. Nonmalignant conditions cause most of these symptoms, but cancers can cause symptoms like unexplained weight loss or fatigue. But it’s a good reminder to listen to your body and immediately notify your doctor.


If any of your first-degree relatives had been a cancer victim, it increases the probability of cancer for you as well. Consult your health care provider regarding cancer screening if you feel any unusual changes in the symptoms mentioned above. Certain tests can aid in the early detection of cancer when treatment is more likely to be successful, while others can detect precancerous conditions before they progress to cancer.


Quitting smoking after a cancer diagnosis also reduces mortality. According to a CDC report, between 2009 and 2013, approximately 660,000 Americans were diagnosed with or died from tobacco-related cancer. Tobacco use has no safe level. Tobacco users of all kinds are prompted to quit—people who stop smoking live longer than those who continue to smoke, regardless of age.

Check out this article that details the timeline of benefits as soon as one quits smoking.


Alcohol is linked to approximately 6% of all cancers and 4% of all cancer deaths in the United States. According to the American Cancer Society’s Guideline for Diet and Physical Activity for Cancer Prevention, it is best to give up drinking. Alcoholics should limit their consumption to two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women. The recommended limit is lower for women due to their smaller bodies and their bodies’ slower metabolism of alcohol.


Obesity raises the risk of cancer. Calories matter; eat less and exercise more to lose weight. Exercise has been linked to a decreased risk of 19% colon cancer by study. Additionally, exercise appears to lower a woman’s risk of developing breast and possibly uterine cancers. Even if you do not lose weight, for instance, exercise will help safeguard you. The American Institute of Cancer Research recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise each week. It’s best to do both, but not all at once. You can break up your activity into 10-minute intervals.

Go over this article to identify a regimen of workouts that fit you and your age group.


Reduce your intake of saturated fats and red meat, which are linked to increase your risk of colon and prostate cancers. Eat more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Incorporate anti-oxidants foods in your diet from an early age to maintain the number of food compounds in the body. Want to know what foods to eat as antioxidants? Read here.

You are what you eat – what you ingest can have a direct impact to your gene expression. Since cancer is related to gene’s malfunctioning – be mindful of your daily diet is important to uphold your health and to prevent cancer.


Conduct medical imaging scans only when necessary. Protect yourself from the sun’s ultraviolet radiation, which increases your risk of developing melanomas and other skin cancers. Avoid tanning beds and sunlight, which can damage your skin just as much as the sun (for a safe way to enjoy the sun, read this researched article). Avoid chemical hazards exposure to toxic substances such as asbestos fibers, benzene, aromatic amines, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). 

Currently there is no evident concerns about electromagnetic radiation emitted by high-voltage power lines or radiofrequency radiation emitted by microwaves and cell phones as per National Cancer Institute, they are not carcinogenic.


So far though the evidence that links sleep and cancer is weak, insufficient sleep is associated with weight gain, which is a risk factor for cancer. According to a smaller study, men who had frequent sleep disruptions had a higher risk of prostate cancer. So it is advised to have a proper good night’s sleep for proper circadian rhythm.

Learn more about sleep in this article.


Certain viruses have been linked to cancer but are vaccine-preventable. Consult your health care provider regarding the recommended age for HPV vaccines. In the United States, approximately one-third of liver cancers are caused by the hepatitis B (HBV) and C viruses (HCV). A vaccine against HBV is available and is recommended for infants, older children who have not been vaccinated previously, and adults at risk of HBV infection. Numerous strains of the human papillomavirus, or HPV, are transmitted via skin-to-skin contact during vaginal, anal, or oral sex. Additionally, the Hepatitis B virus (HBV) can be transmitted from person to person via unprotected sex.

Aside from prevention measures, education and preparedness are the best anticancer defenses.



Emotional support from family and friends has been shown to improve a cancer patient’s quality of life significantly. If a friend has cancer, you may be wondering how to best support them. But knowing what to say or do can be difficult. While each person affected by cancer is unique, the following are some general suggestions for showing support.

  • Ask permission. Ask if you can visit, give advice, or ask questions. Make it clear to the person that saying no is fine.
  • Visit frequently. Arrange a visit during which you can also provide physical and emotional support. Short, frequent visits are preferable to lengthy, infrequent ones. Understand that your friend may not wish to speak, but they may also dislike being alone, so support them in any way you can.
  • Be a good listener. Emotional support includes listening. A good listener tries to focus on the present moment. Silences are OK, don’t feel like you have to fill them with words. If a loved one cries, do not attempt to console them. Assure them that it is acceptable for them to be sad and that it is a natural reaction to what is happening to them. Don’t advise unless they ask for it.
  • Talk about topics other than cancer. Chat about your interests, hobbies, and other non-cancer-related issues. Individuals undergoing treatment may occasionally want a break from discussing the ailment.
  • Support practically. Check-in with your friend or loved one and see if they require assistance with anything specific. Some people refuse or resist help. They may want to remain self-sufficient. Don’t take it personally. Remember to let them know you are there if they change their minds. You can offer to help with specific tasks like child care, pet care, or meal preparation. Be creative with the help you offer.
  • Choose your words and talk wisely. While you may initially be unsure of what to say or do, being open and welcoming to how they are feeling is what the majority of people require. Knowing you are there for them is extremely beneficial. Be entertaining and humorous when appropriate and necessary. A light conversation or a witty story can brighten another person’s day. Here are some things you can say to help show your care and support:
What to say What not to say
I’m sorry this has happened to you I know just how you feel.
If you ever feel like talking, I’m here to listen. How long do you have?
What are you thinking of doing, and how can I help? Don’t worry
I care about you. I’m sure you’ll be fine.
I’m thinking about you. Never say you have got good cancer (as there is no such thing as good cancer)
I am praying for you I had a friend who died of cancer
You are strong. You can do this I didn’t think you’d be feeling up for it.
  • Gifts are helpful! Look for small, valuable items that your loved one might like keeping their interests and hobbies in mind. Consider how you can improve their day by giving small and frequent gifts such as a magazine they like, some funky socks, self-care items, a cancer resource book, a special pillow, a heating pad, a massage device, etc.
  • Follow through. If you commit to helping them in any way, you must keep your promise. Make time for a phone check-in. Notify your friend or loved one of your upcoming call.
  • Treat them the same.  Make an effort not to let the person’s condition interfere with your closeness. As much as possible, continue to treat him or her the same way you have always treated them. Don’t be afraid to hug or touch someone if this was a natural part of your relationship before the illness. Cancers are not contagious –  you cannot “catch” cancer from someone else.
  • Encourage the person to stay involved. Keep them motivated towards life. Assist your friend or family member in determining how to maintain involvement in his or her usual activities and routines like before. These strategies assist many cancer patients in coping during a period marked by several unusual situations. However, some people may not participate in everyday activities and routines due to a lack of time or energy caused by cancer or its treatment.

A cancer diagnosis brings sadness, anger, confusion, and helplessness. It is helpful for the person diagnosed with cancer when friends and family members provide a reassuring presence and practical support. Don’t abandon them, and staying in touch is always preferable.


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Being a Doctor by profession, Aimen is passionate about helping people get better health in their lives. Aimen enjoys her research on Prime With Time subjects and strives to create better awareness of the problems and changes related to women's health.
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