Common Types Of Cancer

In 2003 more than 2 million new cancer cases were diagnosed in the United States alone, and in that same year, more than half a million Americans died of cancer. Cancer can strike anyone, but the risk increases with age, certain lifestyles, and the quality of the environment. Nearly 80 percent of all cancers are diagnosed in patients age 55 and older, and smokers are 20 times more likely to develop lung cancer than nonsmokers. Cancers can appear in any of our tissues and organs, but there are some tissues that are more susceptible than others: Skin cells and the epithelial cells lining the lungs and digestive tract are prominent members in this group. All of these tissues and organs are at the interphase between the external environment and our internal organs, and like a sailor on the mast, take the full force of the storm when it hits (see table on page 3).

The skin is exposed to daily doses of ultraviolet (UV) radiation and a variety of chemicals in the environment. The lungs, while providing us with the oxygen we need to breathe, are exposed to many other gases, such as smoke and pollutants that happen to be in the air. Our digestive tract is in direct contact with the food and water that we consume; and much of what we eat and drink contains chemicals that are often unhealthy, many of which are known carcinogens or mutagens.

Some cancers, such as those affecting the brain, breasts, or prostate gland, do not have clear connections to lifestyle or the environment, but appear to be a consequence of normal physiology and cellular biochemistry. Our bodies, complex machines that they are, simply start to break down after many years, and cancer is one of the regrettable consequences.

The deadliness of a cancer varies depending on the tissue that is affected. Prostate cancer struck more than 200,000 American men in 2003, but the mortality was only 13 percent (that is, 28,900 men died of prostate cancer in the same year). By contrast, brain tumors have a mortality of 72 percent, and lung cancer is even worse, with a mortality of 88 percent. But the deadliest of all cancers are those that appear in the pancreas, where the mortality is a numbing 98 percent (see table on page 3).

The cancers shown in the table, and the seven covered in greater detail later in this chapter, kill millions of people worldwide every year. Brain tumors are described in this chapter, not because they are numerically common, but because of their notoriety, mortality, and the devastating effects they have on the patient's mental faculties.

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