The Big C: Cancer–The Disease in a Nutshell

Cancer is arguably the most feared disease in the Western world.  In America, cancer is the leading cause of death of people between 35-65 years of age.  Nearly 1 in 7 deaths worldwide in 2007 was due to cancer.  Cancer rates are exploding throughout the world as developing nations industrialize and eat diets that are less nutritious (think of pollution and McDonald’s).  Because of physiological and social reasons, gynecological cancers are some of the most lethal types of cancer in women.  To better understand gynecological cancers, let’s take a step back and get to grips with the basics of cancer.

Cancer is a disease affecting humans, and other animals, that is a result of abnormal cells growing out of control.  Cancer can happen in virtually any part of the body and there are more than 100 distinct types.  The cells in our bodies are continually regenerating.  There is a saying that our bodies completely regenerate every seven years.  (In fact, each type of cell–each part of the body– regenerates at a different pace.)  When our bodies dictate the script (DNA being the script) that causes cell reproduction, occasionally there is a typo.  Many different things (such as smoking) can cause a “typo.”  When this happens, the body has difficulty righting the mistake and it can grow out of control resulting in cancer as seen in this illustration:

The top half of the illustration is a process called apoptosis, by which a damaged cell is removed through programmed cell death.  (I jokingly think of apoptosis as telling a “bad cell” to “pop off.”)  A lack of apoptosis is when the damaged cells are not programmed out.  This is where cancer begins.

If this growth of abnormal cells is caught in an early stage, it usually can be treated easily by removing the growth.*  Stages are a means by which the cancerous growths can be classified by how far along it has progressed.  There are four main stages, and with specific types of cancers there are further subdivisions such as “Stage II-C.”  Usually by the time a cancerous growth has reached the fourth, most advanced stage it has undergone a process called metastasis.

Metastasis is when the cancer spreads from its primary site to other sites.  So, if you hear an official cancer diagnosis, it may sound something like, “metastatic breast cancer” or “metastatic cancer primary to the liver.”  This indicates where the cancer began and that it is present in other locations.  Metastasis usually occurs through the body’s lymphatic system.  That’s why one often hears about lymph nodes in relation to cancer.

There are innumerable ways in which cancer is diagnosed.  Once it is found and diagnosed, there is a great divergence between how cancer behaves and how it is best treated depending on the type of cancer, medical history, and other factors.  If you ever find yourself receiving a cancer diagnosis, you will need to create a very specific plan with your physicians–no two diagnoses are ever exactly identical.  Hopefully this brief overview of the Big C helps build your understanding of the disease if you ever find yourself in close contact with cancer.

*(In my case, I had a very slow-growing cancer.  So, even though it was not caught at all “early,” it was still in an early stage.)

Health Information Online

As you all may know, I am a master’s student in bioethics.  Our curriculum covers a wide array of subjects and I am currently in a public health class learning about health communication campaigns (really quite an interesting subject!).  One of the major questions asked by public health communicators now is how reliable is the health information one finds online?  Today, in the United States, about half of the nation has looked online for health information, and over half of all adults have.  Eight of every ten Internet users have searched the Internet for health information.  I, of course, am wary of health information found online and try to avoid taking any advice from online–really it is best to only research maladies and symptoms rather than cures and remedies.  Always consult a doctor about modes of treatment.

I recently became aware of an organization based in Geneva, Switzerland that strives to provide certification to reliable health information websites, such as WebMd.  This organization, called “Health On the Net Foundation,” evaluates websites in English, French, German, Spanish, and Chinese.  The HON Foundation was established  in 1995, went live online in 1996, and is accredited to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations.  The HON Foundation evaluates websites upon request for free and gives passing websites an HONcode Seal of Accreditation.  For instance, if you visit WebMD, take a look at the bottom of the page and you will see the HONcode seal.  (Other accreditations include URAC, which is an American based health care management foundation.  The HON Foundation reflects a more worldwide view of health information and focuses more on accuracy of information rather than care management.)

One of the most helpful features, for individuals, offered by the HON Foundation is the HONcode toolbar.  This toolbar can be downloaded for FireFox and Internet Explorer web browsers.  The user simply types in the search phrase (for example, “Pap smear”) and the toolbar then searches websites that have active accreditation from the HON Foundation.  HONcode websites can also be searched through the main page of the HON Foundation’s website, in case you don’t care for extra toolbars clogging up your web browser.  (Here are the results for the search phrase “Pap smear.”)

While the HON Foundation does have its weaknesses, it is, overall, a very useful tool for helping ensure the quality and accuracy of health information that individuals access through the Internet.  So check it out and remember it the next time you are searching for health information on the web.  Have questions, comments, or otherwise?  I would love to hear from you.