Some cancers are more common in certain parts of the world. For example, in Japan, there are many cases of stomach cancer. But in the United States, this type of cancer is less common. Differences in diet or environmental factors may play a role.
Most cancers are diagnosed by biopsy. Depending on the location of the tumor, the biopsy may be a simple procedure or a serious operation. Most patients with cancer have CT scans to determine the exact location and size of the tumor or tumors.
A cancer diagnosis is often difficult to cope with. It is important that you discuss the type, size, and location of the cancer with your health care provider when you are diagnosed. You also will want to ask about treatment options, along with their benefits and risks.
It's a good idea to have someone with you at the provider's office to help you get through the diagnosis. If you have trouble asking questions after hearing about your diagnosis, the person you bring with you can ask them for you.
Treatment varies based on the type of cancer and its stage. The stage of a cancer refers to how much it has grown and whether the tumor has spread from its original location.
If the cancer is in one location and has not spread, the most common treatment approach is surgery to cure the cancer. This is often the case with skin cancers, as well as cancers of the lung, breast, and colon.
If the tumor has spread to local lymph nodes only, sometimes these can be removed.
If surgery cannot remove all of the cancer, the options for treatment may include radiation, chemotherapy, targeted cancer therapies, or other types of treatment. Some cancers require a combination of treatments. Lymphoma, or cancer of the lymph glands, is rarely treated with surgery. Chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and other nonsurgical therapies are often used.
Although treatment for cancer can be difficult, there are many ways to keep up your strength.
If you have radiation treatment:
Treatment is usually scheduled every weekday.
You should allow 30 minutes for each treatment session, although the treatment itself usually takes only a few minutes.
You should get plenty of rest and eat a well-balanced diet during the course of your radiation therapy.
Skin in the treated area may become sensitive and easily irritated.
Some side effects of radiation treatment are temporary. They vary depending on the area of the body that is being treated.
If you have chemotherapy:
Get plenty of rest, and don't feel like you have to accomplish tasks all at once.
Avoid people with colds or the flu. Chemotherapy can cause your immune system to weaken.
Talk with family, friends, or a support group about your feelings. Work with your health care providers throughout your treatment. Helping yourself can make you feel more in control.
The diagnosis and treatment of cancer often causes a lot of anxiety and can affect a person's entire life. There are many resources for cancer patients.
The outlook depends on the type of cancer and the stage of the cancer when diagnosed.
Some cancers can be cured. Other cancers that are not curable can still be treated effectively. Some patients can live for many years with cancer. Other tumors are quickly life threatening.
Complications depend on the type and stage of cancer. The cancer may spread.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Contact your health care provider if you develop symptoms of cancer.
You can reduce the risk of getting a cancerous (malignant) tumor by:
Eating healthy foods
Maintaining a healthy weight
Minimizing your exposure to radiation and toxic chemicals
Not smoking or chewing tobacco
Reducing sun exposure, especially if you burn easily
Cancer screenings, such as mammography and breast examination for breast cancer and colonoscopy for colon cancer, may help catch these cancers at their early stages when they are most treatable. Some people at high risk for developing certain cancers can take medication to reduce their risk.
National Cancer Institute. Chemotherapy and you: support for people who have cancer. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/coping/chemotherapy-and-you. Accessed January 8, 2015.
National Cancer Institute. Radiation therapy and you: support for people who have cancer. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/coping/radiation-therapy-and-you. Accessed January 8, 2015.
Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Doroshow JH, Kastan MB, Tepper JE, eds. Abeloff's Clinical Oncology. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Churchill Livingstone; 2014.
Perry MC. Approach to the patient with cancer. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2012:chap 182.
Siegel RL, Miller KD, Jemal A. Cancer statistics, 2015. CA Cancer J Clin. 2015;65:5-29.
Laura J. Martin, MD, MPH, ABIM Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Hospice and Palliative Medicine, Atlanta, GA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.