The general term used to refer to a malignant TUMOUR, irrespective of the tissue of origin. ‘Malignancy’ indicates that (i) the tumour is capable of progressive growth, unrestrained by the capsule of the parent organ, and/or (ii) that it is capable of distant spread via lymphatics or the bloodstream, resulting in development of secondary deposits of tumour known as ‘metastases’. Microscopically, cancer cells appear different from the equivalent normal cells in the affected tissue. In particular they may show a lesser degree of differentiation (i.e. they are more ‘primitive’), features indicative of a faster proliferative rate and disorganised alignment in relationship to other cells or blood vessels. The diagnosis of cancer usually depends upon the observation of these microscopic features in biopsies, i.e. tissue removed surgically for such examination.

Cancers are classified according to the type of cell from which they are derived as well as the organ of origin. Hence cancers arising within the bronchi, often collectively referred to as ‘lung cancer’, include both adenocarcinomas, derived from epithelium (surface tissue), and carcinomas from glandular tissue. Sarcomas are cancers of connective tissue, including bone and cartilage. The behaviour of cancers and their response to therapy vary widely depending on this classification as well as on numerous other factors such as how large the cancer is, how fast the cells grow and how well defined they are. It is entirely wrong to see cancer as a single disease entity with a universally poor prognosis. For example, fewer than one-half of women in whom breast cancer (see BREASTS, DISEASES OF) is discovered will die from the disease, and 75 per cent of children with lymphoblastic LEUKAEMIA can be cured.

Incidence In most western countries, cancer is the second most important cause of death after heart disease and accounts for 20–25 per cent of all deaths. In the United Kingdom in 2003, more than 154,000 people died of malignant disease. There is wide international variation in the most frequently encountered types of cancer, reflecting the importance of environmental factors in the development of cancer. In the UK as well as the US, carcinoma of the BRONCHUS is the most common. Since it is usually inoperable at the time of diagnosis, it is even more strikingly the leading cause of cancer deaths. In women, breast cancer was for a long time the most common malignant disease, accounting for a quarter of all cancers, but figures for the late 1990s show that lung cancer now heads the incidence list – presumably the consequence of a rising incidence of smoking among young women. Other common sites are as follows: males – colon and rectum, prostate and bladder; females – colon and rectum, uterus, ovary and pancreas.

In 2003, of the more than 154,000 people in the UK who died of cancer, over 33,000 had the disease in their respiratory system, nearly 13,000 in the breast, over 5,800 in the stomach and more than 2,000 in the uterus or cervix, while over 4,000 people had leukaemia. The incidence of cancer varies with age; the older a person is, the more likely it is that he or she will develop the disease. The over-85s have an incidence about nine times greater than those in the 25–44 age group. There are also differences in incidence between sexes: for example, more men than women develop lung cancer, though the incidence in women is rising as the effects of smoking work through. The death rate from cancer is falling in people under 75 in the UK, a trend largely determined by the cancers which cause the most deaths: lung, breast, colorectal, stomach and prostate.

Causes In most cases the causes of cancer remain unknown, though a family history of cancer may be relevant. Rapid advances have, however, been made in the past two decades in understanding the differences between cancer cells and normal cells at the genetic level. It is now widely accepted that cancer results from acquired changes in the genetic make-up of a particular cell or group of cells which ultimately lead to a failure of the normal mechanisms regulating their growth. It appears that in most cases a cascade of changes is required for cells to behave in a truly malignant fashion; the critical changes affect specific key GENES, known as oncogenes, which are involved in growth regulation. (See APOPTOSIS.)

Since small genetic errors occur within cells at all times – most but not all of which are repaired – it follows that some cancers may develop as a result of an accumulation of random changes which cannot be attributed to environmental or other causes. The environmental factors known to cause cancer, such as radiation and chemicals (including tar from tobacco, asbestos, etc.), do so by increasing the overall rate of acquired genetic damage. Certain viral infections can induce specific cancers (e.g. HEPATITIS B VIRUS and HEPATOMA, EPSTEIN BARR VIRUS and LYMPHOMA) probably by inducing alterations in specific genes. HORMONES may also be a factor in the development of certain cancers such as those of the prostate and breast. Where there is a particular family tendency to certain types of cancer, it now appears that one or more of the critical genetic abnormalities required for development of that cancer may have been inherited. Where environmental factors such as tobacco smoking or asbestos are known to cause cancer, then health education and preventive measures can reduce the incidence of the relevant cancer. Cancer can also affect the white cells in the blood and is called LEUKAEMIA.

Treatment Many cancers can be cured by surgical removal if they are detected early, before there has been spread of significant numbers of tumour cells to distant sites. Important within this group are breast, colon and skin cancer (melanoma). The probability of early detection of certain cancers can be increased by screening programmes in which (ideally) all people at particular risk of development of such cancers are examined at regular intervals. Routine screening for CERVICAL CANCER and breast cancer (see BREASTS, DISEASES OF) is currently practised in the UK. The effectiveness of screening people for cancer is, however, controversial. Apart from questions surrounding the reliability of screening tests, they undoubtedly create anxieties among the subjects being screened.

If complete surgical removal of the tumour is not possible because of its location or because spread from the primary site has occurred, an operation may nevertheless be helpful to relieve symptoms (e.g. pain) and to reduce the bulk of the tumour remaining to be dealt with by alternative means such as RADIOTHERAPY or CHEMOTHERAPY. In some cases radiotherapy is preferable to surgery and may be curative, for example, in the management of tumours of the larynx or of the uterine cervix. Certain tumours are highly sensitive to chemotherapy and may be cured by the use of chemotherapeutic drugs alone. These include testicular tumours, LEUKAEMIA, LYMPHOMA and a variety of tumours occurring in childhood. These tend to be rapidly growing tumours composed of primitive cells which are much more vulnerable to the toxic effects of the chemotherapeutic agents than the normal cells within the body.

Unfortunately neither radiotherapy nor currently available chemotherapy provides a curative option for the majority of common cancers if surgical excision is not feasible. New effective treatments in these conditions are urgently needed. Nevertheless the rapidly increasing knowledge of cancer biology will almost certainly lead to novel therapeutic approaches – including probably genetic techniques utilising the recent discoveries of oncogenes (genes that can cause cancer). Where cure is not possible, there often remains much that can be done for the cancer-sufferer in terms of control of unpleasant symptoms such as pain. Many of the most important recent advances in cancer care relate to such ‘palliative’ treatment, and include the establishment in the UK of palliative care hospices.

Families and patients can obtain valuable help and advice from Marie Curie Cancer Care, Cancer Relief Macmillan Fund, or the British Association of Cancer United Patients.