About cancer

What is cancer?

There are more than one hundred types of cancer that can occur in different places in the body. Each type is a different disease. What they have in common is that in each of these diseases uninhibited cell division takes place that is not corrected by the body.

Cell division

Our body consists of billions of cells. Cells are the building blocks of our body and new cells are being created all the time. This is necessary to be able to grow, but also to replace damaged and old cells. Cells are created through the process of cell division. During cell division, two cells are created from one cell, which in turn will also divide, and so on.

Controlled cell division

Cell division does not happen haphazardly; it is well regulated and controlled. The information necessary for this is recorded in the genes. Genes are units of information that we inherited from our parents. This hereditary material, also known as DNA, occurs in almost every cell in the body.

Uncontrolled cell division

Throughout our lives, the cells of our body are exposed to various harmful influences. Generally speaking, our ‘maintenance’ genes will repair any damage. However, it is possible that over time a cell becomes damaged beyond repair. In the long run this can lead to changes in the genes that regulate the division, growth and development of such a cell. This means that the process of cell division becomes deregulated. Uncontrolled cell division will occur, which will lead to a tumour.

Benign and malignant

There are benign and malignant tumours. Only when a tumour is malignant is it called cancer. With benign tumours, our body eventually regains control over the cell division and the cells do not spread throughout the body. A wart is an example of a benign tumour. It is, however, possible for such a benign tumour to press against the surrounding tissue. This can cause complications, in which case the tumour needs to be removed. With malignant tumours, the control mechanisms are damaged to such a degree that our body cannot regain control of the cell division. A malignant tumour can not only press against the surrounding tissue, but can also grow into the surrounding tissue and/or spread through the body.

Cancer can also develop in certain types of blood cells that are created in the bone marrow or in the lymphatic system. An example of blood cell cancer is leukaemia; an example of cancer in the lymphatic system is Hodgkin’s disease. In these diseases the cancerous cells are disrupting the functioning of the blood and/or lymphatic system.

Metastasis

With malignant tumours it is possible that cells separate from the tumour. The tumour cells are spread through the body by the lymphatic system and/or the blood. In this way, cancerous cells can enter other organs and grow into tumours there. This is known as metastasis: the spread of the original cancerous cells to one or more locations in the body. An example: if a patient with cancer of the large intestine later develops cancer in the liver, it is not liver cancer, but intestinal cancer cells in the liver.

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