A typical, healthy cell has a life cycle of growth, division, and death. A cancer cell is an abnormal cell that doesn’t follow this cycle.
Instead of dying off as they should, cancer cells reproduce more abnormal cells that can invade nearby tissue. They can also travel throughout the blood and lymph systems to other parts of the body.
Let’s take a closer look at what it takes for a normal cell to become cancerous, and what you can do to lower your chances of developing cancer.
No, we don’t all have cancer cells in our bodies.
Our bodies are constantly producing new cells, some of which have the potential to become cancerous. At any given moment, we may be producing cells that have damaged DNA, but that doesn’t mean they’re destined to become cancer.
Most of the time, cells with damaged DNA either repair themselves or die off through apoptosis. The potential for cancer happens only when neither of those things happen.
In a nutshell, normal cells obey instructions. Cancer cells don’t.
Normal cells grow and divide only as needed to replace damaged or aging cells. Mature cells have specialized functions. Once they fulfill their purpose, they die off, completing their life cycle.
Cancer cells have mutated genes and are less specialized than normal cells. Cancer cells don’t follow the regular routine. Needed or not, they grow and divide and don’t die off when they should. It’s this out-of-control growth that leads to cancer.
Cancer cells pile up to form tumors and spread into surrounding tissue. These cells can also break away and travel to other parts of the body.
To complicate matters, cancer cells can affect the behavior of normal cells. They can prompt healthy cells around them to grow new blood vessels in order to keep cancerous tumors supplied with nutrients.
Cancer cells can often evade the immune system by inhibiting immune cells from differentiating them from other cells.
There’s a big difference between benign and malignant cells.
Benign cells are noncancerous. They sometimes overproduce and form tumors, but they don’t have the ability to invade other tissue. They’re not usually life threatening, but they can be if they grow too large or push into an organ. A benign brain tumor, for example, can be dangerous.
When a benign tumor is removed, it’s unlikely to grow back. Since benign cells don’t spread, there’s no need for treatment to prevent the benign cells from coming back.
Malignant cells are cancerous and potentially life threatening. They have the ability to invade nearby tissues and spread throughout the body.
When a malignant tumor is removed, any cells left behind can result in new growth. That’s why cancer often requires additional treatment, such as chemotherapy, immunotherapy, or radiation, to seek out and destroy cancer cells throughout the body.
Cancer is linked to damaged DNA. Inherited genetic mutations are associated with 5 to 10 percent of all cancers. Having one of these genetic mutations increases your risk of developing cancer, but it’s not inevitable.
You can also acquire genetic mutations through other factors, including:
- chemicals in tobacco smoke
- ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun or tanning beds
- exposure to radiation, including radiation treatment
- poor diet, including a high intake of processed meats
- physical inactivity
- alcohol misuse
- exposure to chemicals such as radon, lead, and asbestos
- infections such as human papillomavirus (HPV) and hepatitis
The exact reason someone develops cancer can’t always be determined. A combination of factors may contribute to the start of cancer. Once a cell has a mutation, it’s passed on to every cell it produces.
You can’t completely eliminate the risk of cancer, but there are steps you can take to reduce your risk.
- Avoid tobacco. This includes cigars, cigarettes, pipes, and smokeless tobacco products. In the United States, 1 out of every 3 cancer deaths can be attributed to smoking.
- Get regular cancer screenings. Some screenings, like Pap smears and colonoscopies, can detect abnormal cells before they have the chance to turn cancerous. Other screenings, like a mammogram, can detect localized cancer cells before they start to spread.
- Drink alcohol in moderation. Alcoholic drinks contain ethanol, which increases the risk of cancer over time. Alcohol should be limited to one drink per day for women and two for men.
- Protect your skin from sun. Avoid UV rays by covering your skin and using broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30. Try to avoid spending time in the midday sun and don’t use tanning beds or sun lamps.
- Stick to a healthy, balanced diet. Try to include plenty of vegetables, fruit, and whole grains in your diet. Limit processed foods, sugars, red meats, and processed meats.
- Exercise. Physical inactivity can raise the risk of cancer. Try to do at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week.
Talk to your doctor about vaccines that may help lower the risk of certain cancers.
HPV is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) transmitted through skin-to-skin contact. It can cause cervical, genital, and head and neck cancers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
There’s also a vaccine for hepatitis B, a viral infection that can increase the risk of liver cancer.
Talk to your doctor about your cancer risk and other steps you can take to lower those risks.
We don’t all have cancer cells in our bodies.
The sheer number of cells your body constantly makes means that there’s always the possibility that some may be damaged. Even then, those damaged cells won’t necessarily turn into cancer.
Cancer typically derives from damage to DNA through inherited genetic mutations or something you’re exposed to in your daily life.
You can’t control genetic mutations, but some lifestyle changes can help lower your risk of developing cancer, including getting certain cancer screenings to stop cancer before it starts.