How Does Cancer Work?

What is Cancer and how does it affect us?


Although cancer effects hundreds of thousands of people in the UK every year, it’s easy to not have a firm grasp on the basics of how the disease actually works.

How Does It Start?

Cancer is a disease that can start surreptitiously. Many of the symptoms that cancer sufferers usually exhibit can be innocent enough, when taken alone. Irregular bowel movements, breathlessness and unexplained weight loss are all symptoms that could be presented by any number of other illnesses, which can lead to difficulties in diagnosis.


In normal cells, messages are received and sent which informs them when to grow and stop. If enough ‘grow’ messages get sent through, the cell will follow that instruction. Cancerous cells are formed by messages that give the cell the wrong instructions, leading it grow uncontrollably and divide more frequently.

How Do Cancer Cells Survive?

Cancer cells cheat death through a number of ways. In a healthy body, every single part of your body is made up of a optimum number of cells. Deviation from this number normally results in cell suicide, however cancerous cells find a way around this. A protein, called p53, usually ascertains whether a cell should be repaired or destroyed.


Cancerous cells often have a slightly adapted p53 protein, which allows them to ignore the self-destruct order and continue to multiply. Once the defective cells have avoided destruction they can then spread across the body freely.

How Does It Spread?

Metastasis is the name given to cancer cells that spread throughout the body. Non-cancerous cells are programmed to stay attached to their fellow cells and environment. If they happen to become detached from their home, they are programmed to self-destruct.


As we’ve mentioned, cancerous cells have a way out of this fail safe. This allows them to drift throughout the rest of the body, using the blood stream as a means of transportation. These cells can then go on to form secondary tumours which can make it even more difficult for healthcare professionals to find.

How Can It Be Destroyed?

Cancer is currently tackled using three different medical procedures. Surgery is the most primitive form of treatment, requiring a surgeon to physically cut the offending tissue out, it’s considered the best method of treatment, whilst the disease is still in it’s early stages.


Radiotherapy is a process that has seen vast improvements over recent years. Using a beam of radiation, doctors can target cancers with a surprising amount of accuracy, thanks to recently developed imaging techniques. Finally, chemotherapy is perhaps the most well-known form of treatment for cancers. An aggressive form of treatment, it effectively poisons the whole body killing any cells that are multiplying rapidly. 

For more information regarding how Cancer works and what you can do about it – visit the Helpful Resources page.

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