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Oncology: About Cancer
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About Cancer

Cancer is a large group of diseases in which cells grow out of control and often spread to other parts of the body. Cancer cells, often referred to as malignant cells, are cells that have been genetically altered to look and function differently from normal cells.

While many cellular characteristics are alike among malignant cells, the different types of cancers have many differences.  What this means is that no two individuals’ cancers are alike. Breast cancer in one person likely behaves very differently than in another person, even though it sounds like the same cancer diagnosis. And lung cancer is very different from breast cancer and colon cancer.  


A staging system is used to help determine the characteristics of one’s cancer. That information is key not only to how well a person’s cancer will respond to the best treatment available at the time, but also to help explain and predict how that person’s cancer will behave. Staging systems help physicians determine three things:

  • Whether the cancer has spread to nearby organs and tissues
  • Whether the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes
  • Whether the cancer has spread to distant parts of the body

A biopsy is always required to determine the cancer’s stage; X-rays, CT scans and MRIs also are often required.

Treatment Options

There are many types of treatment for cancer. Surgery is the treatment of choice for tumors confined to a local area. Radiation therapy uses high-energy waves to kill the cancer cells; it is, like surgery, also a local treatment. Pharmacologic therapy involves the use of:

  • Chemotherapy
  • Biotherapy
  • Hormonal therapy
  • Molecular targeted therapy

These pharmacologic treatments are all forms of systemic therapy, which means that the treatment travels all over the body to find and kill the cancer cells.

Each of the three types of treatment (surgery, radiation therapy and pharmacologic therapy) may be used alone, or in combination as a primary therapy.  They may be used before the primary therapy, or they may be used after the primary therapy.  The choice of therapy depends on the goals of treatment.

Integration and Complementary Approach

The National Cancer Institute has created a National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). You can access information on the web at http://nccam.nih.gov.

We suggest that you share information about other therapies you are using or have used to manage your cancer with your physician. 

Cure, Control, Palliation

Cure, control and palliation are three goals of cancer treatment. 

  • Cure – of course, the ultimate goal – is complete removal of the cancer.  The common definition of cure is no treatment and no evidence of cancer for five to ten years, depending on the type of cancer.
  • Control is stopping cancer that has recurred or metastasized, or controlling the growth or spread of cancer as long as possible.
  • Palliation means that the therapy is used to relieve symptoms, so that the patient receives comfort and the highest quality of life possible.