ThedaCare Health Matters

Despite advances, cancer is still a potent foe

Years ago, I saw the expression “cancer sucks” on a t-shirt of a middle school boy I knew whose mother had passed away from breast cancer the year before. I could not help thinking about that as I recently attended the funeral of a very fine man. While heart disease is the leading cause of death in all Americans, cancer is the leading cause of death in people less than 85 years old.

Cancer is defined as growth of tissue or cells that are out of control and invading into other tissues or organs. Normal cells and tissues stay within their boundaries and perform a certain function. Cells are programmed to do certain tasks by the DNA in their nucleus.

If there is a defect in that DNA, the cell can transform into a cancerous cell. Cancerous tissue knows no boundaries and has the potential to spread sometimes locally and sometimes to tissues distant from where it originated.

Cancers tend to be more successfully treated if discovered early when the growth is small and localized. Some cancers have warning signs in the early stages while others do not. There are strategies that can be used to detect and diagnose some cancers in the early stages even before symptoms occur. These include mammograms for breast cancer, PAP smears for cervical cancer and colonoscopy or stool testing for colon cancer.