What Causes a Cell to Become Cancerous?

Cancer is often perceived as a disease that strikes for no apparent reason. While scientists don't yet know all the reasons, many of the causes of cancer have already been identified. Besides intrinsic factors such as heredity, diet, and hormones, scientific studies point to key extrinsic factors that contribute to the cancer's development: chemicals (e.g., smoking), radiation, and viruses or bacteria.

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Changes to the Cell

All cancers begin in cells, the body's basic unit of life. To understand cancer, it's helpful to know what happens when normal cells become cancer cells.

The body is made up of many types of cells. These cells grow and divide in a controlled way to produce more cells as they are needed to keep the body healthy. When cells become old or damaged, they die and are replaced with new cells.

However, sometimes this orderly process goes wrong. The genetic material (DNA) of a cell can become damaged or changed, producing mutations that affect normal cell growth and division. When this happens, cells do not die when they should and new cells form when the body does not need them. The extra cells may form a mass of tissue called a tumor.

cancer causes
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The image above shows normal cell division and normal cell suicide or apoptosis of a damaged cell. It also shows cancer cell division, through several mutation stages, ending in uncontrolled growth.

To illustrate what is meant by normal growth control, consider the skin. The thin outermost layer of normal skin, called the epidermis, is roughly a dozen cells thick. Cells in the bottom row of this layer, called the basal layer, divide just fast enough to replenish cells that are continually being shed from the surface of the skin. Each time one of these basal cells divides, it produces two cells. One remains in the basal layer and retains the capacity to divide. The other migrates out of the basal layer and loses the capacity to divide. The number of dividing cells in the basal layer, therefore, stays the same.

stages of cancer growth
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During the development of skin cancer, the normal balance between cell division and cell loss is disrupted. The basal cells now divide faster than is needed to replenish the cells being shed from the surface of the skin.

Each time one of these basal cells divides, the two newly formed cells will often retain the capacity to divide, thereby leading to an increase in the total number of dividing cells.

stages of cancer growth
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This gradual increase in the number of dividing cells creates a growing mass of tissue called a "tumor" or "neoplasm." If the rate of cell division is relatively rapid, and no "suicide" signals are in place to trigger cell death, the tumor will grow quickly in size; if the cells divide more slowly, tumor growth will be slower. But regardless of the growth rate, tumors ultimately increase in size because new cells are being produced in greater numbers than needed. As more and more of these dividing cells accumulate, the normal organization of the tissue gradually becomes disrupted.

stages of cancer growth
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Cancers are capable of spreading throughout the body by two mechanisms: invasion and metastasis. Invasion refers to the direct migration and penetration by cancer cells into neighboring tissues. Metastasis refers to the ability of cancer cells to penetrate into lymphatic and blood vessels, circulate through the bloodstream, and then invade normal tissues elsewhere in the body.

stages of cancer growth
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Depending on whether or not they can spread by invasion and metastasis, tumors are classified as being either benign or malignant. Benign tumors are tumors that cannot spread by invasion or metastasis; hence, they only grow locally. Malignant tumors are tumors that are capable of spreading by invasion and metastasis. By definition, the term "cancer" applies only to malignant tumors.

stages of cancer growth
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Reference: National Cancer Institute (NCI)

This information is for general educational uses only. It may not apply to you and your personal medical needs. This information should not be used in place of a visit, call, consultation with or the advice of your physician or health care professional.

Communicate promptly with your physician or other health care professional with any health-related questions or concerns.

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