cancer, in medicine


cancer, in medicine, common term for neoplasms, or tumors, that are malignant. Like benign tumors, malignant tumors do not respond to body mechanisms that limit cell growth. Unlike benign tumors, malignant tumors consist of undifferentiated, or unspecialized, cells that show an atypical cell structure and do not function like the normal cells from the organ from which they derive. Cancer cells, unlike normal cells, lack contact inhibition; cancer cells growing in laboratory tissue culture do not stop growing when they touch each other on a glass or other solid surface but grow in masses several layers deep.

Loss of contact inhibition accounts for two other characteristics of cancer cells: invasiveness of surrounding tissues, and metastasis, or spreading via the lymph system or blood to other tissues and organs. Whereas normal cells have a limited lifespan controlled by the telomere gene, which signals the end of the cell line, cancer cells contain telomerase, an enzyme that alters the telomere gene and allows the cell to continue to divide. Cancer tissue, growing without limits, competes with normal tissue for nutrients, eventually killing normal cells by nutritional deprivation. Cancerous tissue can also cause secondary effects, in which the expanding malignant growth puts pressure on surrounding tissue or organs or the cancer cells metastasize and invade other organs.

Virtually all organs and tissues are susceptible to cancer. Cancers are usually named for their site of origin. Cancer cells that spread to other organs are similar to those of the original tumor, therefore these secondary (metastatic) cancers are still named for their primary site even though they may have invaded a different organ. For example, lung cancer that has spread to the brain is called metastatic lung cancer, rather than brain cancer. Carcinoma in situ refers to a cancer that has not spread. (See neoplasm for more on cancer nomenclature.)

Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States. Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in adults; leukemia is the most common cancer in children. Other common types of cancer include breast cancer (in women), prostate cancer (in men), and colon cancer (see also Hodgkin's disease). The incidence of particular cancers varies around the world and sometimes according to ethnic group. For instance, African Americans have comparatively higher cancer rates and cancer mortality rates. It is unclear whether this is due to differences in exposure or to biological susceptibility. The incidence of diagnosed cases of cancer rose steadily in the United States for decades, but since the early 21st cent. it has slowly declined.

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