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Millions of Americans are living with a diagnosis of cancer. This National Cancer Institute booklet has information about this disease. You will read about Alzheimer’s disease about possible causes, screening tests, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment. You will also find suggestions for coping with cancer.
Researchers are learning more about what causes cancer, and how it grows and progresses. And they are looking for new and better ways to prevent, detect, and treat it. Researchers also are looking for ways to improve the quality of life for people with cancer during and after their treatment.
To learn more about cancer you can utilize the following methods:
- Telephone (1-800-4-CANCER) : Information Specialists at NATIONAL CANCER INSTITUTE’S Cancer Information Service can answer your questions about cancer. They also can send NATIONAL CANCER INSTITUTE booklets, fact sheets, and other materials.
- Internet (http://www.cancer.gov): You can use NATIONAL CANCER INSTITUTE’S Website to find a wide range of up-to-date information. For example, you can find many NATIONAL CANCER INSTITUTE booklets and fact sheets at http://www.cancer.gov/publications. People in the United States and its territories may use this Web site to order printed copies. This Web site also explains how people outside the United States can mail or fax their requests for NATIONAL CANCER INSTITUTE booklets.
Symptoms: What symptoms may be warning signs of cancer?
Cancer can cause many different symptoms. These are some of them:
- A thickening or lump in the breast or any other part of the body
- A new mole or a change in an existing mole
- A sore that does not heal
- Hoarseness or a cough that does not go away
- Changes in bowel movement or eating habits
- Discomfort after eating
- A hard time swallowing
- Weight gain or loss with no known reason
- Unusual bleeding or discharge
- Feeling weak or very tired
Most often, these symptoms are not due to cancer. They may also be caused by benign tumors or other problems. Only a doctor can tell for sure. Anyone with these symptoms or other changes in health should see a doctor to diagnose and treat problems as early as possible.
Usually, early cancer does not cause pain. If you have symptoms, do not wait to feel pain before seeing a doctor.
If you have a symptom or your screening test result suggests cancer, the doctor must find out whether it is due to cancer or to some other cause. The doctor may ask about your personal and family medical history and do a physical exam. The doctor also may order lab tests, x-rays, or other tests or procedures.
Tests of the blood, urine, or other fluids can help doctors make a diagnosis. These tests can show how well an organ (such as the kidney) is doing its job. Also, high amounts of some substances may be a sign of cancer. These substances are often called tumor markers. However, abnormal lab results are not a sure sign of cancer. Doctors cannot rely on lab tests alone to diagnose cancer.
Imaging procedure create pictures of areas inside your body that help the doctor see whether a tumor is present. These pictures can be taken in several ways:
- X-rays: X-rays are the most common way to view organs and bones inside the body.
- CT scan: An x-ray machine linked to a computer takes a series of detailed pictures of your organs. You may receive a contrast material (such as dye) to make these pictures easier to read.
- Ultrasound: An ultrasound device sends out sound waves that people cannot hear. The waves bounce off tissues inside your body like an echo. A computer uses these echoes to create a picture called a sonogram.
- MRI: A strong magnet linked to a computer is used to make detailed pictures of areas in your body. Your doctor can view these pictures on a monitor and can print them on film.
- PET scan: You receive an injection of a small amount of radioactive material. A machine makes pictures that show chemical activities in the body. Cancer cells sometimes show up as areas of high activity.
In most cases, doctors need to do a biopsy to make a diagnosis of cancer. For a biopsy, the doctor removes a sample of tissue and sends it to a lab. A pathologist looks at the tissue under a microscope. The sample may be removed in several ways:
- With a needle: The doctor uses a needle to withdraw tissue or fluid.
- With an endoscope: The doctor uses a thin, lighted tube (an endoscope) to look at areas inside the body. The doctor can remove tissue or cells through the tube.
- With surgery: Surgery may be excisional or incisional.
- In an excisional biopsy, the surgeon removes the entire tumor, in an incisional biopsy; the surgeon removes just part of the tumor.
Many people with cancer want to take an active part in making decisions about their medical care. It is natural to want to learn all you can about your disease and treatment choices. However, shock and stress after the diagnosis can make it hard to think of everything you want to ask the doctor. It often helps to make a list of question before an appointment.
To help remember what the doctor says, you may take notes or ask whether you may use a tape recorder. Some people also want to have a family member or friend with them when they talk to the doctor – to take part in the discussion, to take notes, or just to listen.
You do not need to ask all your questions at once. You will have other chances to ask the doctor or nurse to explain things that are not clear and to ask for more information.
Your doctor may refer you to a specialist, or you may ask for a referral. Specialists who treat cancer include surgeons, medical oncologists and hematologists.
Getting a second opinion
Before starting treatment, you may want a second opinion about your diagnosis and treatment plan. Many insurance companies will cover a second opinion if your doctor requests it. It may take some time and effort to gather medical records and arrange to see another doctor. Usually it is not a problem to take several weeks to get a second opinion. In most cases, the delay in starting treatment will not make treatment less effective. But some people with cancer need treatment right away. To make sure, you should discuss this delay with your doctor.
The treatment plan depends mainly on the type of cancer and the stage of the disease.
Doctors also consider the patient’s age and general health. Often, the goal of treatment is to cure the cancer. In other cases, the goal is to control the disease or to reduce symptoms for as long as possible. The treatment plan may change over time.
Most treatment plans include surgery, radiation therapy, or chemotherapy. Some involve hormone therapy or biological therapy.
Some cancers respond best to a single type of treatment. Others may respond best to a combination of treatments.
Treatments may work in a specific area (local therapy) or throughout the body (systemic therapy):
- Local therapy removes or destroys cancer in just one part of the body. Surgery to remove a tumor is local therapy. Radiations Therapy to shrink or destroy a tumor also is usually local therapy.
- Systemic therapy sends drugs or substances through the bloodstream to destroy cancer cells all over the body. It kills or slows the growth of cancer cells that may have spread the cancer beyond the original tumor. Chemotherapy, hormone therapy, and biological therapy are usually systemic therapy.
Your doctor can describe your treatment choices and the expected results. You and your doctor can work together to decide on a treatment plan that is best for you.
Because cancer treatments often damage healthy cells and tissues, side effects are common. Side effects depend mainly on the type and extent of the treatment. Side effects may not be the same for each person, and they may change from one treatment session to the next.
Before treatment starts, the health care team will explain possible side effects and suggest ways to help you manage them. This team may include nurses, a dietitian, a physical therapist, and others.
At any stage of cancer, supportive care is available to relieve the side effects of therapy, to control pain and other symptoms, and to ease emotional and practical problems. Information about supportive care is available by calling the NATIONAL CANCER INSTITUTE’ hotline and speaking to Information Specialists at 1-800-4-CANCER.
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About the Senior Citizens Bureau
The Senior Citizens Bureau (SCB) was found in 1998 and is a national, non-profit community resource for the elderly, children of the elderly and other caregivers, advocates and professionals.