Cancer 101: A Beginner’s Guide

Cancer 101: A Beginner’s Guide

Understanding cancer basics

Cancer is a scary word. It’s something we all hope to never have to deal with–but if you’re reading this, cancer is probably affecting you or a loved one in some way. Understanding the basics of cancer can help you better navigate the disease and help your child receive the best possible care. Of course, your doctor is the best resource to understand a specific case of cancer.

Mom holding her daughter

Krista Jacobsen and her daughter Harper

What is cancer?

Cancer is a disease where some of the body’s cells grow uncontrollably and spread to other parts of the body. But what causes that exactly? Typically, our cells will form, grow, and multiply as the body needs them. When they get old or damaged, they die. However, sometimes there can be mistakes in this coding system and damaged cells and up multiplying when they shouldn’t. These cells typically form a solid mass of tissue known as a tumor, except in blood cancers like leukemia.

Cancer cells unfortunately are very stubborn and behave differently than normal cells. They grow without any signals and ignore the ones that tell them to die (a process called apoptosis). They also trick the immune system into helping them, instead of attacking them. Researchers are learning more about the abnormal behavior of cancer cells and how to better stop it from progressing.

Magnifying glass hovering over the word "cancer"How do people get cancer?

The causes of cancer are complex and can vary from person to person. Some factors that can increase the risk of developing cancer include genetics, exposure to certain chemicals or substances, lifestyle factors like smoking or poor diet, and exposure to radiation or other environmental factors.

For families dealing with pediatric cancer, it’s important to remember that cancer in children is often caused by genetic mutations that occur during early development. It truly is no one’s fault, and in most cases there is nothing that could have been done to prevent the cancer from occurring.

Pediatric patient standing in the hallway

Ayden Denne

What do the stages mean?

There are several different ways to stage cancer, but the one most commonly used comes from the TNM system. There are several levels to this staging including Tumor, lymph nodes, and metastasis. So if someone has stage 3 cancer, it may not be a 3 on all fronts.

  • T=tumor (T0-4). The higher the T number, the larger the tumor or the more present it is in nearby tissues.
  • N=nodes (N0-4), or lymph nodes. Lymph nodes are little bean shaped collections of immune cells. Often cancers travel through the lymph nodes to reach other parts of the body. The higher the N, the more that cancer has spread
  • M=metastasis. M0=no spread, M=1 means that the cancer was found in other organs or tissues

Staging is often more complicated than it seems. Your doctor can always help break down a specific case of cancer in a way that’s more valuable for you.

How is cancer treated?

The treatment of cancer can vary depending on the type and stage of the disease, as well as the individual needs of the patient. Some common treatments for cancer include:

  • Surgery to remove the tumor
  • Chemotherapy to kill cancer cells
  • Radiation therapy to destroy cancer cells
  • Immunotherapy to boost the body’s natural defenses against cancer
  • Targeted therapy to attack specific molecules that are involved in cancer growth

Cancer medicationsYour doctor will develop a personalized treatment plan that takes into account your child’s unique needs and circumstances. Each year, there are also numerous clinical trials that are working to strengthen the effects of these treatments. Use this search tool if you’re interested in learning more about clinical trials across the country. With constant research and development of cancer treatments, we’re getting closer to a cure.

Cancer sucks. What can I do now?

We know that cancer sucks, and has a myriad of impacts that go beyond the physical disease, including emotional, mental, and  financial impacts on the whole family. Here to Serve recognizes the importance of the cancer journey, and is here to ease the burden of those families dealing with this horrible disease. Check out the wide range of our services, and if you know someone on their cancer journey, get help today!

Author: Emily Rogalin

Emily Rogalin is a copywriter in healthcare advertising in NYC. Having lost multiple members in her family to cancer, she is honored to help bring support to families on this difficult journey.

Information on the Here to Serve website is for educational and informational purposes only. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical guidance.


Image references: