Audience: Middle and High School Students
Cancer. Chances are you’ve heard this word many times throughout your life, and you will continue to hear it over the years to come. Most of us don’t realize how many people this terrible disease affects. In fact, according to the Cancer Research Institute, 1 out of every 2 men and 1 out of every 3 women in the United States are expected to develop cancer during their lifetime.
However, the future of cancer research, treatment, and prevention looks bright, and there is definitely hope for humanity in the battle between STEM vs. cancer. This article will explain what cancer is, the history of the medical treatment of cancer, careers in cancer research and medicine, and the role of STEM in all of this.
To begin with, what is cancer and what is it caused by? What is the difference between malignant and benign tumors?
Cancer is defined as a disease in which abnormal or old cells continue to be produced by the body when they’re not supposed to be. The uncontrollable growth of these abnormal cancer cells crowd out cells that are healthy while the cancer cells spread to different body parts. Just about any of the trillions of cells in the human body can become cancerous, so a cancer can start in many different places. Cancer cells ignore signals that tell them to grow, stop growing, or die (a cell’s programmed death is called apoptosis).
Cancer often grows quickly because of the way cancerous cells operate; their ability to evade the body’s immune system and instruct blood vessels to supply blood to areas with tumors, thereby helping the tumor grow, is why the disease is often so dangerous and difficult to treat. Metastasis is the word for when a cancer spreads and starts developing in a different body part.
So what are tumors, then? Tumors happen when damaged or unhealthy cells multiply even though they’re not supposed to. A lump made from tissue, or a tumor, can form as a result. Benign tumors are tumors that are not cancerous, meaning that they don’t grow into other parts of the body, unlike malignant (or cancerous) tumors.
What kind of a disease is cancer? What causes the likelihood of getting cancer to increase for certain individuals?
When genes are changed in a way that alters the way cells are controlled, cells become cancerous. Therefore, cancer is a genetic disease. Some people have a greater risk of developing some cancers because it runs in the genetics of their family.
The consumption or exposure to certain dangerous and toxic substances (including specific chemicals in the smoke of cigarettes and e-cigarettes) can damage DNA in a way that increases an individual’s risk of getting cancer. Age is also a factor in a person’s likelihood of developing cancer because as we get older, our bodies have a reduced ability of eliminating damaged cells before they have a chance to become cancerous.
This powerful image by the National Cancer Institute on Unsplash shows a girl who is receiving chemotherapy, which is a therapy taken by many cancer patients.
Different Types of Cancer
Over 100 different types of cancer exist. They are often categorized by the type of cell they start in. The names of particular cancers are also often taken from the organ or part of the body where they start. Stomach cancer, lung cancer, skin cancer, and brain cancer are all examples of this.
Hematologic cancers (or cancers of the blood) and solid tumor cancers (cancer in tissues or organs instead of the blood) are the two large categories that cancers are sorted into.
Some (not all) of the more specific cancers within these categories are listed below. If the paragraph is marked with an H before it, that type of cancer falls into the hematologic cancer category, and if it is marked with an S, it is part of the solid tumor cancer category.
S - Cancers that begin in epithelial cells are called carcinomas, the most common cancer. Adenocarcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, transitional cell carcinoma, and basal cell carcinoma are all types of carcinomas.
S - Cancers that begin in soft tissues (like fat, muscle, blood vessels, etc.) and bones are called sarcomas. Examples of sarcomas include malignant fibrous histiocytoma, Osteosarcoma, leiomyosarcoma, and malignant fibrous histiocytoma.
H - Cancers that form in T cells or B cells (types of white blood cells in our immune system called lymphocytes) are classified as lymphomas. Lymphomas are generally categorized into two general types: Hodgkin lymphoma and Non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
H - Leukemias are cancers that are formed in the tissue inside bone marrow. In leukemia, instead of solid tumors forming in the body, abnormal white blood cells accumulate in bone marrow and blood. This leads to a decrease in the amount of normal blood cells, which can cause problems like reduced ability to fight infections, control bleeding, or properly oxygenate the body’s tissues.
There are many more cancers that were not mentioned in this section. If you’re interested in learning about cancer(s) in more detail, take a look at the sources below!
What Is Cancer? - Additional information about how cancer is defined, how it starts, cancer-causing genes, changes in tissue that aren’t cancer, and further categorizations of it.
What Is Cancer? | cancer.org - More extensive information on the different types of cancers and other general details about the causes and growth of cancer.
History of Cancer Treatment and Research
More than a century of researching and developing treatments for cancer is responsible for the breakthroughs and effective cancer therapy practices we have today.
The field of cancer research quickly developed towards the final years of the 1800s and the start of the 1900s. Prominent cancer institutes in America, such as The Institute of Cancer Research at Columbia University, the AACR (American Association for Cancer Research), and Roswell Park were being founded around this time. National cancer legislation in America was also created in the early 20th century. Over time, the government increased support for cancer research, allowing the field to thrive and many advancements to be made. The usage and growing knowledge of X-ray and radium in the 20th century allowed cancer in the body to be better tracked and studied.
A technological instrument called a microtome is able to cut “extremely thin sections of material for examination under a microscope”. This incredible piece of technology is used at the Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research. Image by the National Cancer Institute from Unsplash.
Role of STEM in Cancer Treatment and Prevention
Studying and treating cancer heavily involves knowledge of STEM topics. An understanding of biomedical sciences is vital in the development of cancer drugs and chemotherapies. These are therapies that cancer patients take to help destroy, control, or manage their cancer according to the specific stage and severity of it. New technology including Image Guided Radiation Therapy (IMGT) and ChemoID is allowing healthcare professionals to better succeed in targeting and treating cancer. Read the next section for information about the different STEM-related careers in this rapidly changing and developing field.
Careers in Cancer Treatment and Research
If you are interested in biomedical-related sciences, including biology, chemistry, physiology, and pharmacology, then you might be interested in a career in cancer research or treatment!
Cancer researchers are scientists that can study a variety of things, including (but not limited to) the behaviors of cancer cells, how cancer grows and spreads, and cancer prevention. This job can include lab work.
Oncologists are doctors specializing in providing care and treatment for individuals with cancer.
Medical oncologists use therapies like medication and chemotherapy.
Radiation oncologists use therapy that involves radiation (intense beams of energy) to kill cells that are cancerous.
Surgical oncologists remove cancerous tumors from the body and also diagnose cancer by performing specific biopsies.
There are multiple other types of oncologists as well.
Oncology nurses are nurses that assist oncologists and work with cancer patients.
Some technicians create invaluable technologies that are revolutionizing the cancer treatment and prevention field as well.
There are many other careers in these fields that couldn’t be covered in the article but are worth learning about! Click here to learn about jobs within the field of oncology and here for healthcare professions that are related to cancer care.
In conclusion, cancer is a dangerous and complex disease that claims millions of lives worldwide each year, but scientists, researchers, healthcare workers, and other STEM professionals are making great strides in finding ways to treat it. New technology is also making it easier to learn about how cancer grows within the body. In the extremely long battle between STEM and cancer, we might finally be gaining the upper hand.
“FAQ.” Cancer Research Institute, www.cancerresearch.org/faq.
“Types of Oncologists.” Cancer.Net, 7 Jan. 2019, www.cancer.net/navigating-cancer-care/cancer-basics/cancer-care-team/types-oncologists.
Weinstein, I. Bernard, and Kathleen Case. “The History of Cancer Research: Introducing an AACR Centennial Series.” Cancer Research, American Association for Cancer Research, 1 Sept. 2008, cancerres.aacrjournals.org/content/68/17/6861.
“What Is Cancer?” American Cancer Society, www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-basics/what-is-cancer.html.
“What Is Cancer?” National Cancer Institute, www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/understanding/what-is-cancer.