Is cancer a single disease or a group of different disorders?

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10 January
15:54
10 January
16:24

All cancers share the underlying principle that they start when a normal healthy cell 'goes rogue'. But beyond this premise, the term 'cancer' can account for a broad range of diseases with vastly different behaviours and outcomes. 

The reasons for this are two-fold. First of all, the part of the body where cancer originates can dramatically affect its development. Secondly, cancers evolve as they grow building up more mistakes in their DNA, each one potentially changing its behaviour. 

"Cancer can arise in any part of the body where cells are growing. Since cancer cells usually retain many of the characteristics of its tissue-of-origin, this can lead to different behaviours between cancer types."

Cancer can arise in any part of the body where cells are growing. Since cancer cells usually retain many of the characteristics of its tissue-of-origin, this can lead to different behaviours between cancer types. For example, more than 95 percent of testicular cancer patients now survive the disease. This is mainly because certain chemotherapies, in particular platinum-based drugs, are exceptionally effective at killing these cell types. 

In contrast, lung, pancreatic, and brain cancers are usually much more difficult to treat. These cancer types tend to be fast growing, resistant to current treatments, and difficult to diagnose. 

But even if we defined cancers of the same tissue as being the same disease, there is still an enormous amount of variety. Two patients with the same cancer type can often have very different diseases depending on how their particular cancer has developed. The exact DNA faults that give rise to cancer, and how that cancer evolves is fundamentally unique to each patient. 

"Two patients with the same cancer type can often have very different diseases depending on how their particular cancer has developed."

Only recently have we had the capacity and knowledge to begin attempting to tailor a patient's treatment to the specific characteristics of his or her own cancer. Whether these cancer types all count as one disease or a group of different disorders depends on where you want to draw the line between them. Either way, fighting it is a massive challenge, but we have made tremendous progress. 

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