Doctors use all kinds of terms
for cancer - malignancy, carcinoma, lymphoma, tumor, and so
on. Most people just see cancer as a word for a bad disease,
which can act like a parasite and destroy the body. There
is no single cause of cancer, or even of each individual form
of the disease.
Two unique characteristics of cancer cells create the deadly
nature of this disease. First, cancer cells may spread to
adjacent areas and invade normal tissues and organs, depriving
them of nutrition and competing for space. Second, these cells
may travel to a distant part of the body where they begin
the development of another tumor, called a metastasis. The
most common sites of metastasis spread are the bones, lungs,
liver, brain, and central nervous system. We all have cancer
cells in our bodies. They develop naturally all the time.
Usually, the body's immune system disposes of these cells.
When this process of self-defense stops for some reason, a
tumor begins to develop.
From the point of view of medical professionals, compared
to some other life-threatening diseases, cancer more often
can be managed. The time course is one more understood and
most people are still able to take care of themselves and
stay mentally alert until close to the end. These characteristics
also make cancer the most terrible of diseases for those who
suffer it. The sick person has the time and lucidity to feel
all the tragedy, pain and inevitability of the situation they
are in. Cancer has two devastating effects, which often appear
together. It induces long term, debilitating exhaustion and
acute, agonizing pain.
Early in the course of dealing with cancer, treatments aim
mostly at a cure or at least a substantial lengthening of
life. With these goals, it is certainly worth going through
a lot of discomfort.
However, when cancer recurs or spreads despite treatment,
then the cancer is likely to cause death eventually. The benefits
of further treatment aimed at modifying the cancer must always
be weighed against the burdens those treatments will cause.
Usually, the time comes when all of the available treatments
to change the course of the cancer offer nothing worthwhile.
Throughout this, treatments are always appropriate when they
enhance comfort, improve the patient’s functioning,
and support families.
Even when there is nothing more to do about the cancer growth,
there's lots to do to maintain comfort and give the terminally
ill the chance to do the things that are meaningful to them
and to their loved ones. When treatments won’t really
change the time course of the cancer, patients still need
comfort care, or what doctors call palliation, the relief
of symptoms that affect the quality of life. In fact, patients
should aim to live well throughout the course of their illness,
pursuing those personal goals that they can achieve while
remaining comfortable all the time.