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11.4: Types of Cancer

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    There are more than 100 types of cancer. Types of cancer are usually named for the organs or tissues where the cancers form. For example, lung cancer starts in cells of the lung and brain cancer starts in cells of the brain. Cancers may also be described by the type of cell that formed them, such as an epithelial cell or a squamous cell.

    Some types of cancer are:

    Breast Cancer

    The breast is made up of glands called lobules that can make milk and thin tubes called ducts that carry the milk from the lobules to the nipple. Breast tissue also contains fat and connective tissue, lymph nodes, and blood vessels.

    The most common type of breast cancer is ductal carcinoma, which begins in the cells of the ducts. Breast cancer can also begin in the cells of the lobules and in other tissues in the breast. Ductal carcinoma in situ is a condition in which abnormal cells are found in the lining of the ducts but have not spread outside the duct. Breast cancer that has spread from where it began in the ducts or lobules to surrounding tissue is called invasive breast cancer. In inflammatory breast cancer, the breast looks red and swollen and feels warm because the cancer cells block the lymph vessels in the skin.

    In the United States, breast cancer is the second most common cancer in women after skin cancer. It can occur in both men and women, but it is rare in men. Each year there are about 100 times more new cases of breast cancer in women than in men.

    Some screening tests for breast cancer include:

    • Clinical breast exams and regular breast self-exams
      Routine examinations of the breasts by health care providers or by women themselves have not been shown to reduce deaths from breast cancer. However, if a woman or her health care provider notices a lump or other unusual change in the breast, it is important for her to get it checked out.

      The following link explains how to perform a Breast Self-Exam:

      Breast Self-Exam (BSE)

    • Mammography
      This screening method for breast cancer has been shown to reduce mortality from the disease among women aged from 40 to 74, especially those aged 50 or older.
    • Breast MRI
      This imaging test is often used for women who carry a harmful mutation in the BRCA1 gene or theBRCA2 gene; such women have a high risk of developing breast cancer, as well as increased risk for other cancers.

    Cervical Cancer

    The cervix is the lower, narrow end of the uterus, the organ where a fetus grows. The cervix leads from the uterus to the vagina, also known as the birth canal.

    The main types of cervical cancer are squamous cell carcinoma and adenocarcinoma. Squamous cell carcinoma begins in the thin, flat cells that line the cervix. Adenocarcinoma begins in cervical cells that make mucus and other fluids.

    Long-lasting infections with certain types of human papillomavirus (HPV) cause almost all cases of cervical cancer. Vaccines that protect against infection with these types of HPV can greatly reduce the risk of cervical cancer.

    Screening tests:

    • Pap test and human papillomavirus (HPV) testing
      Having a Pap test to check for abnormal cells in the cervix, or a test to check for HPV, can find cells that may become cervical cancer. These cells can be treated before cancer forms. Testing is generally recommended to begin at age 21 and to end at age 65, as long as recent results have been normal.

    Colorectal Cancer

    Colorectal cancer is cancer that starts in the colon or rectum. The colon and the rectum are parts of the large intestine, which is the lower part of the body’s digestive system. During digestion, food moves through the stomach and small intestine into the colon. The colon absorbs water and nutrients from the food and stores waste matter called stool. Stool moves from the colon into the rectum before it leaves the body.

    Most colorectal cancers are adenocarcinomas, cancers that begin in cells that make and release mucus and other fluids. Colorectal cancer often begins as an abnormal colon growth called a polyp, which may form on the inner wall of the colon or rectum. Some polyps may develop into cancer over time. Finding and removing polyps can prevent colorectal cancer.

    Colorectal cancer is the third most common type of cancer in men and women in the United States.

    Screening tests:

    • Colonoscopy, sigmoidoscopy, and high-sensitivity fecal occult blood tests (FOBTs)
      Deaths from colorectal cancer have decreased with the use of colonoscopies and fecal occult blood tests, which check for blood in the stool. Colonoscopy and sigmoidoscopy also help prevent colorectal cancer because they can detect polyps that can be removed before they develop into cancer. Expert groups generally recommend that people who are at average risk for colorectal cancer have screening beginning at age 50 through age 75.

    Lung Cancer

    Most lung cancer diagnoses are either non- small cell lung cancer or small cell lung cancer, depending on the way the cells look under a microscope. Non-small cell lung cancer is much more common than small cell lung cancer.

    Most cases of lung cancer are caused by smoking. Lung cancer is the leading cause of death from cancer in the United States.

    For most patients with lung cancer, current treatments do not cure the cancer.

    Screening test:

    • Low-dose helical computed tomography
      This test, which is used to screen for lung cancer, has been shown to reduce lung cancer deaths among heavy smokers aged from 55 to 74.

    Prostate Cancer

    The prostate gland makes fluid that forms part of semen. The prostate lies just below the bladder in front of the rectum. It surrounds the urethra, the tube that carries urine and semen through the penis and out of the body.

    Prostate cancer is the most common cancer in men in the United States, after skin cancer, and the second leading cause of death. Prostate cancer occurs more often in African-American men than in white men. African-American men with prostate cancer are more likely to die from the disease than white men with prostate cancer.

    Almost all prostate cancers are adenocarcinomas, cancers that begin in cells that make and release mucus and other fluids. Prostate cancer often has no early symptoms. Advanced prostate cancer can cause men to urinate more often or have a weaker flow of urine, but these symptoms can also be caused by benign prostate conditions.

    Prostate cancer usually grows very slowly. Most men with prostate cancer are older than 65 years and do not die from the disease. Finding and treating prostate cancer before symptoms occur may not improve a patient’s health or help him live longer. Men are advised to consult their doctor about their risk of prostate cancer and whether they need screening tests.

    Screening test:

    • PSA test
      This blood test, which is often done along with a digital rectal exam, is able to detect prostate cancer at an early stage. However, expert groups no longer recommend routine PSA testing for most men because studies have shown that it has little or no effect on prostate cancer deaths and leads to overdiagnosis and overtreatment.

    Skin Cancer

    Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer. It usually forms in skin that has been exposed to sunlight but can occur anywhere on the body.

    Skin consists of several layers. Skin cancer begins in the epidermis, or outer layer, which is made up of squamous cells, basal cells, and melanocytes.

    There are several different types of skin cancer. Squamous cell and basal cell skin cancers are sometimes called nonmelanoma skin cancers.

    Nonmelanoma skin cancer usually responds to treatment and rarely spreads to other parts of the body.

    Melanoma is more aggressive than most other types of skin cancer. Unless melanoma is diagnosed early, it is likely to invade nearby tissues and spread to other parts of the body. The number of cases of melanoma increases each year. Only 2 percent of all skin cancers are melanoma, but it causes the most deaths from skin cancer.

    Screening test:

    • Skin exams
      Doctors often recommend that people who are at risk for skin cancer examine their skin regularly or have a health care provider do so. Such exams have not been shown to decrease the risk of dying from skin cancer, and they may lead to overtreatment. However, people should be aware of changes in their skin, such as a new mole or a change to an existing mole, and report these to their doctor promptly.

    Testicular Cancer

    The testicles are two glands inside the scrotum, a sac of loose skin below the penis. The testicles make sperm and the hormone testosterone.

    Testicular cancer is the most common cancer in men aged from 15 to 34 years. The two main types of testicular tumors are seminoma and nonseminoma. Nonseminomas tend to grow and spread more quickly than seminomas.

    The most common sign of testicular cancer is a lump or swelling in the testicle. Most testicular cancers can be cured, even if they are diagnosed at an advanced stage.

    Treatment for testicular cancer can cause infertility by decreasing the amount of sperm made by the body. Men who want to have children may want to use sperm banking to store sperm before they begin treatment.

    Screening test:

    • There is no standard or routine screening test for testicular cancer.Most often, testicular cancer is first found by men themselves, either by chance or during self-exam. Sometimes the cancer is found by a doctor during a routine physical exam.

    The following video explains how to perform a testicular self-exam:


    Leukemia is cancer of the blood cells. Most blood cells form in the bone marrow. In leukemia, immature blood cells become cancer. These cells do not work the way they should and crowd out the healthy blood cells in the bone marrow.

    Different types of leukemia depend on the type of blood cell that becomes cancer. For example, lymphoblastic leukemia is a cancer of the lymphoblasts, white blood cells that fight infection. White blood cells are the most common type of blood cell to become cancer. But red blood cells, cells that carry oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body, and platelets, cells that clot the blood, may also become cancerous.

    Leukemia occurs most often in adults older than 55 years, but it is also the most common cancer in children younger than 15 years.

    Leukemia can be either acute or chronic. Acute leukemia is a fast-growing cancer that usually gets worse quickly. Chronic leukemia is a slower-growing cancer that gets worse slowly over time. The treatment and prognosis for leukemia depend on the type of blood cell affected and whether the leukemia is acute or chronic.


    Lymphoma is cancer that begins in cells of the lymph system. The lymph system is part of the immune system, which helps the body fight infection and disease. Because lymph tissue is found all through the body, lymphoma can begin almost anywhere.

    The two main types of lymphoma are Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL). These can occur in both children and adults. The treatment and probability of a cure depend on the stage and the type of lymphoma.

    This page titled 11.4: Types of Cancer is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Flynn et al. (GALILEO Open Learning Materials) .

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