Some basics about tumours

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By Dr Khushboo Shah Sawant

Any mention of the word ‘tumour’ brings jitters and a feeling of fear but not many of us know much about it. This column will take a look at some basic information about tumours, the cancer it can lead to and the impact they have on human beings and the human body.

We start first with the definition of a tumour, which refers to an abnormal swelling or growth usually without any inflammation, which may be benign or malignant in nature. To simplify is further, a tumour is a swelling in any part of the body, which may be caused due to an abnormal growth of cells in that part and can either be solid in nature or may be fluid filled. There may be a great variation in the shape and size of tumours but not many are aware that their presence does not always pose as a health threat.

A benign tumour most often is not harmful to human health. The word ‘benign’ literally means ‘non-progressive’. These type of tumours may not be cancerous in nature but their mere presence can hinder normal body function as they may press upon some nerves or blood vessels. But a benign tumour does not metastasize or to put it simply, it remains as it is. There are various types of benign tumours with some common examples being uterine fibroids, or the fibroids found in the breasts, or lipomas, which are simple soft tissue made up of fat, usually seen just under the surface of the skin.

We shall now have a look at the other form of tumour also known as ‘malignant tumours’. Malignant tumours are cancerous in nature and tend to progress rapidly and even have the potential of causing death. The cells of these kinds of tumours tend to multiply rapidly and cause increasing damage while they also have a dangerous tendency of seeking new territory for their growth, which invariably means the spread of the cancer or metastasis to other parts of the body. The rate of growth of these cancerous cells is much faster as compared to the growth of normal cells in the body, which makes them far more harmful.

To understand the growth of cancer further, we need to understand how metastasis happens. Metastasis is the process by which the cancer cells spread from their primary site to other locations of the human body. The malignant cells spread to the nearby area of the body and spread further on, which causes a localized spread of the cancer. Some cancer cells break off from the original site and spread via the blood stream or the lymphatic system and lodge themselves anywhere else in the body and cause new tumours in the new location. The cancer cells that spread are the same as the original ones. For example, a cell from the cancer of the lungs may metastasize to the liver and cause a new cancer in the liver.

The next area that needs to be understood is how to differentiate a benign tumour from a malignant one if a person has an abnormal growth or swelling in the body. To decide whether a tumour is malignant or benign, a sample of the abnormal growth may have to be taken out by a qualified doctor and sent to a laboratory to be checked by a pathologist. The sample of the abnormal growth taken for examination is called as ‘biopsy’. By performing a biopsy, the exact nature of the cell can be known which will give a confirmation whether the growth is a cancerous one or not.

In case a cancer is malignant and if it remains undiagnosed or untreated, it may invariably cause death. This brings us to the question, how can a mass of cells cause the death of a person? The cancer cells are known to multiply in number rapidly and as the number of abnormal cells grows; it causes an increasing pressure on the normal cells to perform their normal functions. Sometimes the mere location of a tumour in a vital organ like the brain or heart can cause death. But what really causes death in cancer is the metastasis. When the cancer starts to spread to various parts of the body, the normal function in all those parts is affected which affects the overall functioning of the body. The cancer puts additional load on the body and due to its rapid spread it often becomes beyond what the body can accommodate, gradually leading to the collapse of one system of the body after another, eventually leading to death. However, chemotherapy that is a treatment option in cancer kills the rapidly growing cells, which stop their growth.

Cancer is basically caused due to changes in the DNA of the cells, it may be caused as a genetic predisposition which means the tendency may be in the family heredity and can be inherited from parents. Other factors contributing to cancer can be environmental the form of tobacco consumption, naturally occurring exposures like of ultraviolet rays, infectious agents, workplace exposures or household exposures.

While various cancer-causing factors are beyond our control, there are factors like tobacco consumption and cigarette smoking etc which are very much avoidable. The treatment of various types of cancer is not only an expensive process but one that entails a long spell of trauma for the patient and family. But a little care and a great mindfulness to go for medical check ups well in time can help matters to a great extent as early detection is a significant factor in addressing cancer growth.

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