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Cancer
Student Health Information Page compiled by: Kellie Kostopoulos

What is Cancer?

According to the National Cancer Institute, cancer is a term used for any disease in which abnormal cells divide uncontrollably and are able to invade other tissues, or metastasize. Cancer cells can spread to other parts of the body through the blood and lymph.

The body is made up of trillions of living cells. Normal body cells grow, divide to make new cells, and die in an orderly way. During the early years of a person’s life, normal cells divide faster to allow the person to grow. After the person becomes an adult, most cells divide only to replace worn-out or dying cells or to repair injuries.

Cancer starts when cells in a part of the body start to grow out of control. Cancer cell growth is different from normal cell growth. Instead of dying, cancer cells continue to grow and form new, abnormal cells. Cancer cells can also invade (grow into) other tissues, something that normal cells cannot do. Growing out of control and invading other tissues are what makes a cell a cancer cell.

How common is it?

According to the World Health Organization, cancer is the 4th leading cause of death in the United States, and 6th in the world. With over 200 different types of cancer and over 60 organs in which they arise and spread, it is no surprise that there will be an estimated 1.6 million new cases in the year 2014 and over 500,000 estimated deaths. It is a complex chronic disease that has a variety of “upstream” causes that lead to complicated “downstream” consequences.

Cancer kills one in four Americans and is the leading cause of death for women aged 40 to 79 and men aged 60 to 79. From birth to death, men have a 43 percent chance of developing some form of cancer (including nonfatal cancers such as skin cancer), and women have a 38 percent chance. There are many factors that contribute to your personal risk of developing and dying of cancer, including:

  • Your age
  • Your heredity or family history
  • Your race, ethnicity or cultural background
  • For women, the age that you began and stopped having menstrual periods, as well as the timing and number of pregnancies
  • Lifestyle factors, such as your diet and fitness level
  • Your use of tobacco and alcohol
  • Other risk factors, such as your income

How these factors affect your cancer risk is not completely clear. Some people with few or no risk factors will develop cancer, while others with a number of risk factors will never develop cancer. Despite this mystery surrounding who gets cancer, certain statistics are important to understand. Consider the following:

  • Cancer is largely a disease of older adults. Approximately 78 percent of those diagnosed with cancer are aged 65 or older. About 79 percent of cancer deaths occur in those aged 60 or older.
  • Race is related to cancer risk. For example, African-American men are more likely to develop cancer than men of any other racial or ethnic group.
  • People with very low incomes, regardless of race, are more likely to die of cancer than wealthy people are.

In short, given all the potential risk factors involved in developing cancer, the statistics alone may not tell you much.

How can you tell if you have it?

There are general signs and symptoms that are common among several different types of cancer. Some of these symptoms include:
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • The presence of an unusual lump on the body
  • Unexplained fever, fatigue, and pain
  • Skin changes including darkening, yellowing, reddening, itching, or excessive hair growth
  • Unusual bleeding
  • A change in bowel habits such as unusual diarrhea or constipation
  • A persistent sore or ulcer
  • A persistent cough or hoarseness

It is important to follow up with your doctor about any of these symptoms if they last for longer than a few months.

Becoming diagnosed with cancer…what happens next?

There are a variety of treatment options available for people who have been diagnosed with cancer. Below is a list of options patients can be offered during the course of their treatment:
  • Surgical removal of solid tumors: This method can be used to diagnose, treat, or prevent cancer.
  • Chemotherapy: uses medicines or drugs to treat cancer. Often times people are weary of the physical side effects of chemotherapy such as hair loss or nausea, but it allows the patient to have better sense of control over their treatment.
  • Radiation Therapy: this type of therapy uses high-energy particles or waves to destroy or damage the cancer cells, making it difficult for them to continue growing.
  • Targeted Therapy: this is a newer type of therapy that uses drugs or other substances to more precisely attack specific cancer sites.
  • Immunotherapy: this therapy uses the body’s own defense system to fight the cancer.
  • Stem cell or bone marrow transplants: this therapy is a last resort effort treatment for people who have either of the blood cancers (leukemia or lymphoma).

Dealing with your cancer-public health resources

There are many public health resources available to those who have been diagnosed with cancer or who have a loved one with this chronic disease, and want to know more about coping and lifestyle changes. Many times people will look to online or community support groups to help cope with the physical and emotional stress of cancer. Others seek religious and spiritual services by attending church services or connecting with nature.

The American Cancer Society has developed a website that offers direct links to where cancer patients and their loved ones can go directly to search for a variety of programs and services. Some of these include online communities for support like WhatNext, Circle of Sharing, and Cancer Survivors Network, patient lodging programs, hair loss and mastectomy products, I Can Cope online education classes, Look Good Feel Better for teens, and many more. The following resources are available for those seeking more information about coping with cancer and support:

Resources in Chicagoland Area

Some of the available treatment centers in the Chicagoland area:

The University of Chicago Medicine Comprehensive Cancer Center
5841 S Maryland Ave
Chicago, IL 60637
Tel: 1-773-702-6180

Gilda’s Club Chicago
537 North Wells Street
Chicago, Illinois 60654
Tel: 312-464-9900

Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University
675 North St. Clair Street
Chicago, Illinois 60611
Tel: 312-695-0990

University of Illinois Cancer Center
1801 West Taylor Street
Chicago, Illinois 60612
Tel: 866-600-CARE