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Cancer is the name given to a large group of diseases, all of which have one thing in common: cells that are growing out of control. Normally, the cells that make up all of the parts of our bodies go through a predictable life cycle -- old cells die, and new cells arise to take their place. Occasionally, this process goes awry, and cells begin to multiply out of control. The end result is a mass of cells, called a tumor. A benign tumor is one that does not spread, or metastasize to other parts of the body.
It is considered noncancerous. A malignant tumor, on the other hand, can spread throughout the body and is considered cancerous. When malignant cells break away from the primary tumor and settle into another part of the body, the resulting new tumor is called either a metastasis or a secondary tumor.
There are several major types of cancers: carcinomas form in the cells that cover the skin or line the mouth, throat, lungs and organs; sarcomas are found in the bones, muscles, fibrous tissues and some organs; leukemia is found in the blood, the bone marrow, and the spleen; and lymphomas are found in the lymphatic system.
Cancer often takes many years to develop. The process typically begins with some disruption to the DNA of a cell, the genetic code that directs the life of the cell. There can be many reasons for disruptions, such as diet, tobacco, sun exposure, reproductive history or certain chemicals. Some cells will enter a precancerous phase, known as dysplasia. Some cells will progress further to the state of carcinoma in situ, in which the cancer cells are restricted to a microscopic site, surrounded by a thick covering and do not pose a great threat. Eventually, unless the body's own immune system takes care of the wayward cells, a cancer will develop. It may take as long as 30 years for a tumor to go through the entire process and become large enough to produce symptoms.
Since cancer can arise from such a wide variety of sites and develop with many differing patterns of spread, there are no clear-cut symptoms . Cancer is unlike many more specific diseases such as heart disease or arthritic disease. The precise nature of symptoms of cancer depends not only on primary site but specifically where the tumor is located in an organ, rate of development and also secondary spread is present or not. Many primary tumors cause local swelling or lump if they arise at a visible or accessible part of the body, such as a skin, breast, testicle or oral cavity. A typical swelling due to a cancer is initially painless, though ulceration (skin breakdown) can occur, which may then become painful.