Cancer. It's a word no one wants to hear or say. It refers to a group of diseases that occur when abnormal cells spread uncontrollably throughout the body. Medical professionals don't completely understand what causes cancer, but there are lifestyle and genetic factors that can increase your risk. These include smoking, excessive drinking, an unhealthy diet, lack of exercise, and a family history of the disease. Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States.
Not all cases of cancer are fatal. Early detection and treatment have saved many lives. However, it's important to know and understand cancer killers to help you assess your risk and seek medical attention if necessary.
Top cancer killer #1: lung cancer
Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths worldwide. It begins in the lungs and can spread to other areas of the body. Smokers are at the greatest risk, but the disease also affects nonsmokers.
Early-stage lung cancer is hard to detect because it doesn't have obvious signs or symptoms. You may not notice any symptoms until the disease has spread. Symptoms include:
- Developing a new cough that doesn't go away
- Coughing up blood
- Shortness of breath and chest pain
- Hoarseness when speaking
- Unexplained weight loss
- Pain or an achy feeling in the bones
- Persistent headaches
If you notice any of these symptoms, talk to your doctor.
Additionally, if you smoke, quitting greatly reduces your chances of developing lung cancer. There are many treatment options and strategies that can help, like medication, nicotine replacements, and counseling.
Top cancer killer #2: colorectal cancer
Colorectal cancer is another top cancer killer. It develops in the rectum or colon. Doctors will often shorten its name to colon cancer. Your colon is the large intestine, and the rectum is the pathway that connects your colon and anus.
Colorectal cancer occurs when polyps, or abnormal growths, form in the colon or rectum. Sometimes, those polyps turn into cancer. Your risk of developing this cancer increases with age, so it's important to start screening tests early. Your healthcare provider can remove the polyps before they turn cancerous.
Other risk factors include a diagnosis of inflammatory bowel disease, like Crohn's disease, family history, or genetic syndrome. Behavioral risk factors include lack of exercise, being overweight, consuming a diet low in fiber and high in processed meat, smoking, and drinking alcohol.
Like lung cancer, colorectal cancer often doesn't cause any symptoms until it's more advanced. Symptoms include:
- Blood in your stool
- Diarrhea, constipation, or feeling that the bowel does not empty all the way
- Persistent abdominal pain, aches, or cramps that don’t go away
- Losing weight for no reason
Report these symptoms to your doctor. They could be a result of another disease or condition, but it's important to check.
Top cancer killer #3: breast cancer
Breast cancer is number three on the list of top cancer killers. This disease occurs mainly in women, but it can affect men too. It starts as a small growth in the ducts or glandular tissue. Over time, the small lump may spread to the surrounding breast tissue and lymph nodes. This spreading is called "metastasis".
The most significant risk factor is gender. Only 0.5 to 1 percent of cases occur in men. Other risk factors include family history or a specific gene mutation like BRCA1 and BRCA2, obesity, aging, excessive alcohol use, smoking, a history of radiation exposure, and reproductive factors like menstruation and pregnancy.
Breast cancer is deadly, but treatment is highly effective if you discover the disease early. A monthly breast self-examination will help you get to know your breast tissue. Once you see what lumps and bumps exist, it will be easier to notice changes, like a hard lump or thickening that could be a cancerous growth.
Other symptoms include:
- Changes in the size, shape, or appearance of your breast
- Pitting, dimples, or red skin
- Changes in the nipples or surrounding skin
- Abnormal nipple discharge
Not all lumps or abnormalities are cancerous. They can be benign masses, cysts, or an infection. If you discover a lump or notice breast changes, contact your doctor for an exam.
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American Cancer Society: "Cancer Facts & Figures 2021."
American Cancer Society: "Cancer Facts & Figures 2020."
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "What is Colorectal Cancer?"
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "What Are the Risk Factors for Colorectal Cancer?" Mayo Clinic: "Lung Cancer."
National Cancer Institute: "Common Cancer Types."
PubMed: "Cancer Statistics, 2021."
World Health Organization: "Breast cancer."