Cancer is serious, irrespective of what type of cancer it is, where it occurs in the body or how large the tumor may be. There are certain factors that make some cancers more or less serious than others but this should not detract from the fact that cancer is a deadly condition. Fortunately the advances in modern medical sciences has significantly lowered the risk and death from some cancers. The word ‘cancer’ sends most patients and their loved ones into a frenzy and the question that is often posed is “how serious is it?”
It is always advisable to discuss each case of cancer with the oncologist and other supervising doctors to get a more accurate overview of the case. Some of the medical jargon can be confusing and at times some doctors may not make enough of an effort to explain the situation to the patient and their loved ones. The points discussed in this article is simply a guideline. It is highly simplified to allow most readers to understand the salient points. The information is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional.
There are host of individual factors that apply for different types of cancer. The information below is a general guide to the seriousness of all cancers. Most patients refer to seriousness of cancer as the prognosis, survival rate, aggressiveness of the tumor, likelihood for metastatic spread and available cancer treatments that are known to be effective. It is important to understand the difference between malignant and benign tumors. Malignancy refers to cancer while a benign tumor is a non-cancerous growth.
Location Of Tumor
The location of the tumor is one of the main factors in determining how serious s cancer is in relation to cancers elsewhere in the body. For example, lung cancer is the number 0ne cause of cancer-related deaths while kidney cancer (renal cell carcinoma) is at position number ten. In this instance once would consider lung cancer to be more serious than kidney cancer. Cancer in organs that are heavily vascularized (good blood supply), lies close to other organs and contain cells types that tend to mutate into more aggressive cancers are generally considered to be more serious. But location of the tumor should not be viewed in isolation. There are other points that must also be considered at the same time.
Type Of Cell
There are different types of cells in the human body and even within a single organ. Different cells have different characteristics and different functions. Cancer arises when one type of cell becomes “abnormal”, grows rapidly and destroys neighboring cells and tissues. The type of cell that is involved can also determine the seriousness of the cancer. Malignancies of some cell types are more aggressive than others and the prognosis may be poorer. It is therefore important that a tissue sample collected (biopsy) is sent for microscopic examination (cytology) to identify the cell type among other factors.
Spread Of Cancer
Cancer arises at one site in the body, usually from a specific type of cell. It infiltrates the surrounding tissue over time. Cancer at the site of origin is known as the primary cancer or tumor. However, cancer has the ability to spread (metastasize) – either through direct infiltration, via the bloodstream or the lymphatic system. Once it spreads, the prognosis is much worse. In other words, a cancer that has spread from the primary site is much more serious than cancer confined to the tissue or organ where it origination. The reason why this is so serious is that the cancerous cells can lodge elsewhere in the body and cause a malignancy at the site where it travels to and remains.
Staging And Grading
Both staging and grading overlaps with location of the tumor and type of cell. It can be a bit confusing for patients to understand what cancer staging and grading means. Staging determines how severe the cancer is, to what extent it is present at the primary site and whether it has spread beyond. Grading determines how abnormal the cancer cells are, how invasive it is and how likely it is to spread. These systems of classification is used by health care professionals to assess the cancer, decide upon the most likely prognosis, plan the treatment and also monitor the effectiveness of the treatment. However, there will be some degree of variation in the criteria for staging and grading in different cancers.
Time Of Diagnosis And Treatment
As with any disease, the earlier it is detected the better the prognosis. Regular screening may be advisable for individuals who are at high risk of certain cancers. Sometimes cancer is discovered routinely while doing investigations to confirm or exclude other diseases. However, for most other cases the diagnostic investigations are only conducted when there are symptoms indicative of a cancer. The problem is that many cancers do not present with any symptoms in the early stages. Just as important as the time of diagnosis is the time when treatment is commenced. Delaying the treatment for whatever reasons can adversely affect the prognosis meaning that it becomes more serious as time goes by.
General Health Status
It goes with saying that a person’s general health status will play a major role in the prognosis of any disease. The same applies to cancer. A younger patient, who is well nourished, not overweight/obese, does not have any underlying disease and does not partake in harmful habits like cigarette smoking or excessive alcohol use is more likely to have a better prognosis. In fact living what is termed as a healthy lifestyle actually reduces a person’s risk of developing most cancers. Changing one’s general health status is therefore largely under a person’s control. By doing so it can change the prognosis significantly and assist a cancer patient in better tolerating the cancer treatment.
Studies have indicated that those cancer patients who are more optimistic and adopt a positive mindset will have a better prognosis than those who are depressed and believe the situation is hopeless. The effect of the mind over the body is now appreciated by the medical fraternity to such an extent, that some hospitals and medical schools cater for what is termed mind-body medicine programs. It us also known that the support and positive mindset of loved ones can also impact on a cancer patient. While the mental and emotional state will not change the underlying cancer, it plays an important role in recovery and prognosis which should be considered as part of the seriousness of the cancer.
Access To Medical Care
The ability to access quality medical care has a significant impact on the prognosis of any disease, including cancer. Among other benefits, good medical care means early diagnosis, the higher degree of skills to better plan and carry out the treatments and the access to the necessary facilities and latest technology. However, it is also largely determined by the ability to afford quality medical care. While there are numerous countries with excellent public health systems, private medical cares is often better. The seriousness of cancer should therefore also be considered in the context of the cancer patient being able to access quality medical care especially when it comes to rare cancers.