What Is Cancer? by Dr. Rick Boulay
Some people describe cancer as a scourge that has taken their independence, health, and future while others describe it as the blessing that has allowed them to reprioritize their lives. Those of us who went to oncology school have been taught that cancer is the manifestation of uncontrolled proliferation of abnormal cells which have lost contact, inhibition, and developed an ability to metastasize. As common and understandable as that definition is, it does little good in helping the average person understand his/her disease. The concepts, however, are very simple. It is the verbiage that gets in the way.

Normal cells act like good neighbors. They stay within the confines of their property. They do not stray outside their areas. They do not interfere with the functioning of those around them. Cancer cells are the polar opposite. They do not stay within their confines and begin to stray and push out the normal unassuming neighbors. This is what we call invasion. Not only do cancer cells develop an ability to grow irrepressibly and escape their boundaries, but they significantly impair neighboring healthy cells. They can compress nearby normal tissues causing those tissues to malfunction. We see this malfunction in a number of different ways. If the cancer is growing in a bone, we see a higher risk of fracture. If it is growing in nerves, we see nerve pain. If it is growing in lungs, we see people having difficulty breathing. If it is growing under the skin or in lymph nodes close to the skin, we see or feel lumps or bumps.

Also like an unruly neighbor, cancer cells not only push against those cells nearby, but they can actually escape their boundaries and begin to spread into other areas. When cancer cells spread to other areas, we call it metastasis. Once these metastases spread, they begin to grow unchecked like the original cancer cell population creating tumors in other areas. Cancer cells can spread or metastasize in several different ways. They can spread through the bloodstream called hematogenous metastasis. This usually spreads to the lungs and/or the liver damaging those organs. Cancer cells can also move through the lymphatic system spreading to local lymph nodes causing lumps and bumps and what we commonly think of as swollen glands in the neck or the groin. Cancer cells can also spread by what is thought to be exfoliation where little tumors break off and float to other areas within the abdomen.

Once a cancer is identified, the goal of oncology is to control the cancer cells and minimize the damage to local structures so that the rest of the body can function normally for as long as possible. Cancer treatments can be varied. We often use surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, biological agents, and hormonal agents to help to control these cancers. Some people prefer not to treat the actual cancer but only treat the symptoms which can be controlled. This we call palliative therapy. Many cancers can be completely eradicated; and it is the goal of your treatment group, in conjunction with you and your loved ones, to find the most appropriate therapy for your cancer.

How Did I Get Cancer?
Discussion of gene abnormalities, environmental agents, dietary deficiencies, genetic changes, and adaptation to the environment
How Did My Cancer Begin?
Discussion of genetic diseases, gene abnormalities, sporadic cancer, carcinogens, and genetic instability
What Can Cancer Do To Me
Cancer will change everything—your choices, physical body, relationships, fear, spirituality, isolation--positively or negatively; cancer will re-energize you towards your life’s long-term goals
What Cancer Cannot Do To Me
Discussion that cancer cannot change who you are, cannot define who you are, cannot take away hope, cannot take away love
Draw on your strengths prior to your cancer diagnosis
Cancer Diagnosis
Introduction to needs, questions, and pillars of wisdom for cancer diagnosis