What is cancer?
Cancer is a disease in which cells in a part of the body become abnormal and grow uncontrollably. Cancerous cells do not go through the natural stages of growth, division, and dying that normal cells do. They multiply unchecked and may form one or more masses of cells (tumors). Tumors can damage healthy tissue and grow large enough to interfere with body functions. However, not all cancers form tumors (e.g., leukemia) and not all tumors are malignant—some are benign (non-cancerous and non-spreading).
Cancer can eventually spread (metastasize) beyond the site of origin into nearby lymph nodes, tissues, and other organs. There are many types of cancer and they are often named according to location in the body where they originate.
Various lab tests are used in the screening, diagnosis, and management as well as the risk assessment of cancer. However, not all types of tests are available for all types of cancer. Below are listed some examples of these types of tests:
- Risk assessment—determining whether an individual has a high risk for a particular type of cancer; examples include BRCA mutation for breast and ovarian cancer risk and HPV for cervical cancer risk
- Screening—detecting cancer before symptoms appear; examples include Pap test for cervical cancer
- Diagnosis—examples include BCR/ABL mutation to help diagnose chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) or a type of acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) and JAK2 to help diagnose myeloproliferative neoplasms.
- Treatment—helping to guide the selection of drugs to treat cancer or monitoring effectiveness of treatment; example include HER2/neu to determine whether a woman’s breast cancer will respond to the drug trastuzumab and BCR/ABL to monitor treatment of leukemia
Not all types of cancer are covered on Lab Tests Online, but there are numerous web resources available, some specific to certain types of cancer and others that provide more general information on cancer (see Additional Resources below).
Other articles on Lab Tests Online that cover cancer-related topics:
- Anatomic Pathology (helps explain biopsies and pathology reports)
- Genetic Tests for Targeted Cancer Therapy
Research is ongoing into new tests and treatments for cancer. For example, new research has shown that most people with waldenstrom macroglobulinemia (WM) have cancer cells with MYD88 gene mutations. A smaller percentage of WM patients have CXCR4 gene mutations. Scientists are looking into developing new treatments that target these mutations. For more on these, visit the International Waldenstrom’s Macroglobulinemia Foundation website. For more on what’s new in cancer, see the links below in Patient Resources.
There are many web resources available to help you learn more about cancer. Below are just a few examples:
- Patient Power
- International Waldestrom’s Macroglobulinemia Foundation
- National Cancer Institute
- American Cancer Society
- NIH MedlinePlus
- Cancer Support Community: Resources
- National Comprehensive Cancer Network: Patient and Caregiver Resources
- Leukemia & Lymphoma Society: Types of Blood Cancer