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Medicine LibreTexts

11.1: What Is Cancer?

  • Page ID
    11186
  • Cancer is the name given to a collection of related diseases in which the body’s cells begin to divide without stopping and spread into surrounding tissues.

    Cancer can start almost anywhere in the human body, which is made up of trillions of cells. Normally, human cells grow and divide to form new cells as the body needs them. When cells grow old or become damaged, they die, and new cells take their place.

    When cancer develops, however, this orderly process breaks down. As cells become more and more abnormal, old or damaged cells survive when they should die, and new cells form when they are not needed. These extra cells can divide without stopping and may form growths called tumors.

    Many cancers form solid tumors, which are masses of tissue. Cancers of the blood, such as leukemias, generally do not form solid tumors.

    Cancerous tumors are malignant, which means they can spread into, or invade, nearby tissues. In addition, as these tumors grow, some cancer cells can break off and travel to distant places in the body through the blood or the lymph system and form new tumors far from the original tumor.

    Unlike malignant tumors, benign tumors do not invade nearby tissues. However, some benign tumors can be quite large. When removed, they usually do not grow back, whereas malignant tumors sometimes do. Unlike most benign tumors elsewhere in the body, benign tumors in the brain can be life threatening.