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Lynne Eldridge MD

What Makes a Cancer Cell a Cancer Cell?

By February 15, 2013

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I run into 2 types of people when I meet fellow cancer survivors.

One group just wants to be treated. They want their oncologist to choose the treatments and drugs that will work best and give them.

The other group wants information. These people want to know how the drugs work. And to understand how cancer drugs work, it's necessary to understand what makes a cancer cell a cancer cell.

There isn't one group that is right and one group that is one wrong. It simply boils down to different personalities and preferences. It's not just cancer. Something as inconsequential as choosing a washing machine brings out the same differences in our natures. One person may want to know exactly why one washing machine works better than another; another just wants something that will get the job done so they can get on with their life.

The same person may feel differently depending upon where they are in treatment. I recall the feeling of being totally overwhelmed with information overload early on in my treatment. It was only later on that I became more interested in how my treatments worked.

Why might you want to understand how a cancer cell functions? It may help you understand why it's recommended that you receive 2 chemotherapy drugs instead of one. Or, if you're considering a clinical trial, you may be wondering what is unique about the treatment you will receive. Most importantly perhaps is that in understanding how the immune system works against cancer cells, it reinforces why it's important to eat a healthy diet and engage in physical activity even after you've been diagnosed with cancer.

A final reason to understand some of what makes a cancer cell a cancer cell is that it is a good reminder about how remarkable our bodies are. With all of the checkpoints that need to be overridden for a cell to become cancerous, it's amazing that cancer can develop at all. It's only because a billion cells divide in our bodies each and every day, that sometimes things go wrong.

This first article describes a lot of the basics:

This second article goes into a lot more of the differences that make cancer cells unique:

And if you're wondering about the differences that make a tumor benign or malignant as well:

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