Normal body cells grow, divide, and die in an orderly fashion. During the early years of a person’s life, normal cells divide more rapidly until the person becomes an adult. After that, cells in most part of the body divide only to replace worn-out or dying cells and to repair injuries.
Because cancer cells continue to grow and divide, they are different from normal cells. Instead of dying, they outlive normal cells, and continue to form abnormal cells. Cancer cells often travel to other parts of the body where they begin to grow and replace normal tissue. This process, called metastasis, occurs as the cancer cells get into the bloodstream or lymph vessels of our body. When cells from a cancer, like breast cancer, spread to another organ like the liver, the cancer is still called breast cancer, not liver cancer.
Cancer cells develop because of damage to DNA. This substance is in every cell and directs all its activities. Most of the time when DNA becomes damaged the body is able to repair it. In cancer cells, the damaged DNA is not repaired. People can inherit damaged DNA, which accounts for inherited cancers. Many times a person’s DNA becomes damaged by exposure to something in the environment, like smoking.
Cancer usually forms as a solid tumor. Some cancers, like leukemia, do not form tumors. Instead, these cancer cells involve the blood and blood-forming organs and circulate through other tissues where they grow. Not all tumors are cancerous. Benign (noncancerous) tumors do not spread to other parts of the body (metastasize) and, with rare exceptions, are not life threatening.
Different types of cancer can behave very differently. For example, lung cancer and breast cancer are very different diseases. They grow at different rates and respond to different treatments. This is why people with cancer need treatment that is aimed at their particular kind of cancer.