General Cancer Information

What is Cancer?

Cancer is a word that describes a number of conditions, all which begin when cells, the building blocks of the body, lose their ability to grow in a controlled and orderly way.

To understand what happens to cells when you have cancer, it is helpful to understand what a healthy cell does- one that has not been afflicted with cancer.

Healthy Cells

Healthy cells grow, divide, and replace themselves in a way that keeps the body in good repair. Sometimes signals in a cell cause it grow abnormally, in which case other signals in that cell order the abnormal cell to destroy itself. The cycle of a cell – in which it grows, divides, and dies – stays balanced.


Cancer Cells

Cancer cells form when this orderly process of growing, dividing, and dying is disrupted. Abnormal cells grow and multiply rapidly, clump together and form lumps, cysts, or tumors. Some are too small to feel but can be seen on X-rays, MRIs or other diagnostic tests. Cancer cells often look like white clusters (also called microcalcifications), nodules, or dense spots.

Benign vs. Malignant

Tumors and microcalcifications can be either benign or malignant.

Benign means not cancerous. Most lumps fall into this category.

Malignant means the lump or tumor is cancerous. When cancer cells spread through the bloodstream or lymph system to other parts of the body, the spreading is called metastasis. Once cells have traveled and settled in another part of the body, cancer cells can then grow in that area. These new tumors are known as metastastic tumors.