Cancer Biology Overview

What is cancer  | Common Terminology | Diagnosing Cancer | Cancer Treatment

What is cancer?

The human body is made of cells that grow, divide and die in an orderly fashion. As adults get older their bodies’ cells grow and divide specifically to replace damaged or dying cells. Cancer starts when the genetic material (DNA) of a normal cell becomes damaged or changed. When this damage occurs, cells do not die when they should. The cells continue to grow out-of-control and these extra cells form a mass of tissue called a tumor. Tumors are not all cancerous. Tumors can either be benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous). Malignant cancer cells have the unique ability to invade and spread to other tissues. When cancer cells enter into the bloodstream or lymph system, they can travel to other parts of the body and begin to grow. This process is called metastasis.

Many types of cancers exist and all are very different diseases. For example, breast cancer and lung cancer, are two totally different diseases. These two cancers behave very differently, grow at different rates and respond to different treatments. That is why cancer treatment must be viewed on an individual basis.

Common Cancer terminology used by your doctor

Benign: A tumor or growth that is not cancerous. Benign tumors do not spread to other parts of the body. Also, they do not change or destroy nearby tissue. In general, they grow slowly and are not harmful. Benign tumors can be dangerous however, if they grow too large and begin to invade blood vessels or nearby organs.

Malignant: A tumor that is cancerous is made of cells that grow out of control. These tumors may grow into nearby tissues and spread to other parts of the body.

Metastasis (secondary cancer): Cancer cells will sometimes move from the primary location of the first cancer diagnosis through the blood or lymph system to other parts of the body and begin to grow into another tumor or tumors. Although the cancer metastasizes to other parts of the body, metastases will keep the name of the original cancer location.

Carcinoma: Carcinoma is a cancer that begins in the skin or tissues that line or cover organs. There are several types of carcinoma, including adenocarcinoma, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. These types of carcinomas, as well as melanomas can be treated by Alaska Surgical Oncology.

Adenocarcinoma: An adenocarcinoma is a type of cancer that starts in mucous secreting glands in the body. These glands are prevalent throughout the body, so cancer can begin in many places in the body. The most prevalent types of adenocarcinoma that Alaska Surgical Oncology is trained to treat are esophageal, stomach, pancreatic, and colorectal cancers.

Sarcoma: Cancer that begins in bone, cartilage, fat, muscle, blood vessels, or other connective or supportive tissue.

Breast Cancer

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Diagnosing Cancer

When diagnosing cancer, Alaska Surgical Oncology will look at the patient’s age and medical condition, the type of cancer suspected, the severity of the symptoms and previous test results. The same tests may not be ordered for every patient diagnosed with cancer. The following are some of the tests Alaska Surgical Oncology may order, when making a cancer diagnosis:


  • Fine needle aspiration (FNA)
  • Image guided (CT Scan/Ultrasound) core needle biopsy

Radiographic Studies

Endoscopic Studies

  • Colonoscopy
  • Upper Endoscopy
  • Endoscopic Ultrasound (EUS)

Laboratory Studies

  • Blood work
  • Tumor Marker Tests
  • Fecal occult blood

Cancer Treatment

At Alaska Surgical Oncology, we will look at several factors in determining each patient’s treatment plan. We will look at the type of cancer and the stage of the cancer. We will also look at the patient’s overall health and consider the side effects of various treatment regimens. The risks and benefits of each option will be discussed with the patient and final treatment recommendations will be made based on these discussions.

The process of treating cancer will consist of a team of doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals. This approach is called a multidisciplinary approach. At Alaska Surgical Oncology, we believe that combining the skills of several disciplines will offer the patient the best cancer care available. The following are some of the treatment and therapy options Alaska Surgical Oncology will consider for our patients diagnosed with cancer:

  • Surgery: Surgery is sometimes the best form of treatment for certain cancers, as the goal is to remove as much of the cancer as possible.
  • Radiation: Radiation therapy is treatment with high-energy rays or particles that kill cancer cells. Radiation therapy may be used to kill cancer cells that still remain in the body after surgery. Radiation treatment is similar to getting an regular x-ray, except radiation therapy is a lengthier process. Treatment is usually given 5 days a week, for six weeks. Each radiation treatment lasts only a few minutes and is painless.

Types of Radiation Treatments

  • 3D-CRT: Three-dimensional conformal radiation therapy combines multiple radiation treatment fields to deliver precise doses of radiation.
  • IMRT: Intensity modulated radiation therapy is a sophisticated radiation planning and delivery technology that allows radiation dose to closely conform to the shape of the tumor, regardless of the shape.
  • IGRT: Image-guided radiation therapy is a process of taking images of the patient while in the treatment position immediately prior to delivering radiation to ensure that the patient is accurately positioned.
  • HDR: High-dose rate brachytherapy is a small amount of radiation is delivered over a short period of time through a very small radioactive source on the end of a flexible, computer-controlled cable.
  • APBI: Accelerated partial breast irradiation uses either HDR brachytherapy or 3D-CRT to deliver radiation therapy to the breast after lumpectomy.
  • SBRT: Stereotactic body radiation therapy is a new technique that delivers much higher doses of radiation to the tumor in fewer treatment sessions while giving much lower doses of radiation to the surrounding healthy tissue.
  • Gamma Knife Radiosurgery: A non-invasive, one-session treatment that uses gamma rays to destroy both cancers and certain benign growths.
  • Radionuclide treatments: liquid radioactive isotopes are placed into the body and absorbed by tumor cells to deliver high doses of radiation on a cell-by-cell level.


Chemotherapy is the treatment practice of adding cancer-killing drugs into your bloodstream to help kill any cancer cells that have spread to distant organs. While these drugs kill cancer cells, they also damage some normal cells, which leads to side effects. The side effects of chemotherapy depend on the type of drugs used, the amount given, and the length of treatment.

You could experience some of these short-term side effects:

  • Hair loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fatigue

You may also experience some of these long-term side effects:

  • Menstrual changes
  • Nerve damage
  • Heart damage- (if drugs were used for a long time or in high doses)

Hormone Therapy

Cancers that have hormone receptors in their cell membranes are called hormone receptor-positive. In breast cancer, estrogen promotes the growth of breast cancer, so drugs are administered to stop estrogen from telling cells to grow and divide. In general, hormone therapy can be used to help reduce the risk of cancer from coming back after surgery. Hormone therapy has been very helpful in treating advanced breast cancer.

Targeted Therapy

As researchers learn more about the gene changes that cause cancer cells to form and multiply, they have been able to develop newer drugs that seek to go after the inner workings of cancer cells while doing minimal damage to normal cells.

In short, targeted therapy is therapy designed specifically to target cancer cells. Targeted therapy does not work the same as standard chemotherapy drugs and often has different and less severe side effects.

Genomic Therapy

This therapy technique involves the scientific expertise of examining each tumor or cancer area in detail to determine gene-expression profiles, which then guide the physician toward the most effective treatment option targeted to your specific cancer. Genomic therapy is a personalized medicine approach that attacks the specific causes of certain cancers.

In short, targeted therapy is therapy designed specifically to target cancer cells. Targeted therapy does not work the same as standard chemotherapy drugs and often has different and less severe side effects.

Bone-directed therapy

When cancer spreads to the bones, it can weaken them and even lead to the bones breaking, causing extreme pain. Drugs like bisphosphonates and denosumab can help prevent those problems. Bisphosphonates can strengthen bones that have been weakened by invading cancer cells and reduce the risk of pain, fractures, breaks or osteoporosis. Denosumab is a newer drug that can also be used to help reduce the risk of problems from cancer that have spread to the bone. It is given as an injection, used to prevent osteoporosis twice a year.

Follow-up care

After your treatment is over, ongoing follow-up care is needed to watch for treatment side effects and to check for cancer that may come back or spread. During these visits, your doctor will ask about any symptoms you may have and perform a physical examination, as well as ordering blood tests and imaging studies as needed.

Making lifestyle changes to improve your health, over the long term, after cancer treatment and recovery is important. These lifestyle changes include: maintain a better diet, stop smoking, exercise more often, reduce stress and take the time to get proper rest in order to allow your body to recover.

The Healthquest Guidebook

As a community service, we have produced a free guidebook on how to detect and prevent common cancers, and when you need to have screenings with your family physician.

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