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What Is Cancer?

In a healthy body, natural systems control the creation, growth and death (called apoptosis) of cells. Through the natural cycle of life, cells divide to make new tissue as older cells die. When tissue is injured, say by a cut on the hand, the body's cell growth regulators react by speeding up cell division to create new tissue in the injured area as fast as possible. When the body has healed, the creation of new tissue goes back to the normal pace.

Cancer is a condition where the natural systems do not work right and cells do not die at the normal rate. As a result, cell growth exceeds cell death. Cancer cells divide without their normal control and make a mass of extra tissue—a tumor.

As a tumor grows, it promotes the formation of new blood vessels (called angiogenesis) to bring in the oxygen and nutrients it needs. Cancer cells can also leave the tumor site and travel through the blood stream and lymphatic system (the network connecting lymph nodes throughout the body) to other parts of the body, such as the liver, lungs or bones. This process is called metastasis (meh-TAS-ta-sis). In the new site, cancer cells again may begin to divide too quickly and create a tumor.

Updated 01/28/11

  • Lymph Nodes (Lymph Glands): Small clumps of immune cells that act as filters for the lymphatic system. Clusters of lymph nodes are found in the underarms, groin, neck, chest and abdomen.
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