Cancer is when abnormal cells divide in an uncontrolled way. Some cancers may eventually spread into other tissues.
There are more than 200 different types of cancer.
Cancer starts when gene changes make one cell or a few cells begin to grow and multiply too much. This may cause a growth called a tumour.
A primary tumour is the name for where a cancer starts. Cancer can sometimes spread to other parts of the body – this is called a secondary tumour or a metastasis.
The place where a cancer starts in the body is called the primary cancer or primary site. If cancer cells spread to another part of the body the new area of cancer is called a secondary cancer or a metastasis.
Some cancers may spread to more than one area of the body to form multiple secondaries or metastases (pronounced met-as-tah-seez).
Staging is a way of describing the size of a cancer and how far it has grown. When doctors first diagnose a cancer, they carry out tests to check how big the cancer is and whether it has spread into surrounding tissues. They also check to see whether it has spread to another part of the body.
Cancer staging systems may sometimes include grading of the cancer, which describes how similar a cancer cell is to a normal cell.
Staging is important because it helps your treatment team to know which treatments you need. If a cancer is just in one place, then a local treatment such as surgery or radiotherapy could be enough to get rid of it completely. A local treatment treats only one area of the body.
If a cancer has spread, then local treatment alone will not be enough. You will need a treatment that circulates throughout the whole body. These are called systemic treatments. Chemotherapy, hormone therapy and biological therapies are systemic treatments because they circulate in the bloodstream.
Sometimes doctors aren't sure if a cancer has spread to another part of the body or not. They look at the lymph nodes near to the cancer. If there are cancer cells in these nodes, it is a sign that the cancer has begun to spread. Cancer doctors call this having positive lymph nodes. The cells have broken away from the original cancer and got trapped in the lymph nodes. But it is not always possible to tell if they have gone anywhere else.
If cancer cells are found in the lymph nodes, doctors usually suggest adjuvant treatment. This means treatment alongside the treatment for the main primary tumour (chemotherapy after surgery, for example). The aim is to kill any cancer cells that have broken away from the primary tumour.
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