I am frequently asked, \What is cancer?\" and quite frankly, it concerns me considerably. It does not bother me to take the time to try and answer the question, nor is it those who inquire that bother me, but instead it concerns me that despite the vast expenditure on cancer research and health care throughout North America, most people are still quite unaware of what cancer actually is.
Perhaps I am being too harsh, and perhaps the problem is rather the complexity of the issue. Still however, I would argue that given the amount of deaths that occur throughout the world and how much health care spending is directed at preventing, diagnosing, researching, and treating the many different types of cancers, that greater emphasis on public education of what cancer is would have taken place. Indeed, greater public education may improve public engagement in funding initiatives and perhaps also increase the use of preventative measures currently offered to prevent cancer or aid in its early detection.
So how do I answer this question? It is much more difficult then I would have imagined many years ago, but I simply remind those who inquire that each cancer is indeed a seperate disease. What I find works, is explaining that each cell in our body has factors which tell it to divide and replicate and factors which tell it to die (when damaged or when function is no longer required). When one of these factors fails to function when needed (eg. if the pro-survival factors don't stop, or when the cells signal to die don't work), a cell may start growing/dividing unregulated and can progress into masses and migrate throughout the body depending on the severity of change in the cells behavior. In essence, each cell has a balance of factors which control its survival, and when it strives to live forever we are in trouble. Though extremely simplified, I find this explanation suffices, and indeed many follow-up questions ensue.
I have brought forth this discussion because I believe it is necessary for the science, and perhaps more specifically, the medical community to be better public educators of what cancer is, and perhaps, instill an interest in the subject to encourage the public to discover more about cancer.
Please feel free to share your thoughts on the subject below.