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| What Is Cancer? |
Cancer results from a series of molecular events that fundamentally alter the normal properties of cells. In cancer cells the normal control systems that prevent cell overgrowth and the invasion of other tissues are disabled. These altered cells divide and grow in the presence of signals that normally inhibit cell growth; therefore, they no longer require special signals to induce cell growth and division. As these cells grow they develop new characteristics, including changes in cell structure, decreased cell adhesion, and production of new enzymes. These heritable changes allow the cell and its progeny to divide and grow, even in the presence of normal cells that typically inhibit the growth of nearby cells. Such changes allow the cancer cells to spread and invade other tissues.
The abnormalities in cancer cells usually result from mutations in protein-encoding genes that regulate cell division. Over time more genes become mutated. This is often because the genes that make the proteins that normally repair DNA damage are themselves not functioning normally because they are also mutated. Consequently, mutations begin to increase in the cell, causing further abnormalities in that cell and the daughter cells. Some of these mutated cells die, but other alterations may give the abnormal cell a selective advantage that allows it to multiply much more rapidly than the normal cells. This enhanced growth describes most cancer cells, which have gained functions repressed in the normal, healthy cells. As long as these cells remain in their original location, they are considered benign; if they become invasive, they are considered malignant. Cancer cells in malignant tumors can often metastasize, sending cancer cells to distant sites in the body where new tumors may form.