Often, we talk about cancer as a single disease. But there are actually many types of cancer, each with different symptoms, causes, and treatments. Certain cancers even show different prevalence across geographical areas. For example, in Northern Africa, the most common cancers are breast, bladder, and liver cancers. In comparison, prostate, lung, and colorectal cancers are the most diagnosed in Southern Africa.
Generally speaking, cancer happens when abnormal cells in your body grow out of control and crowd out the normal cells, making it difficult for your body to function as it should. Over time, these abnormal cells can form masses, referred to as tumors.
However, such tumors and abnormal cells can present in many different ways. To simplify matters, the multiple forms of cancer are grouped into categories or classes. Today, we’re looking at the five major types of cancer: carcinoma, sarcoma, melanoma, lymphoma, and leukemia.
Carcinoma is the most common category of cancer. It begins in the epithelial tissues, which are the major tissues in your glands. They perform various bodily functions, including protection, absorption, secretion, excretion, and filtration. There are five main types of carcinoma:
This is the most prevalent carcinoma, occurring when cancerous cells develop in the lowest layer of your skin, the basal cell layer. This cancer tends to grow slowly and rarely spreads to other parts of the body.
Symptoms can include:
- Open sores that do not heal
- Dark patches of skin
- Raised scar-like areas
- Shiny lumps or bumps
People with light-colored skin that burns easily, people with freckles, and people who experience heightened exposure to UV rays are at additional risk for basal cell carcinoma. Also, having blue or green eyes, blonde or red hair, a weakened immune system, or a history of long-term skin inflammation caused by burns or infections can contribute. Finally, men are at a greater risk than women.
The second most common type of skin cancer, this carcinoma forms in your squamous cells, which are the primary cells in your outermost layer of skin. These cancers also grow slowly, and it is uncommon for them to spread.
Depending on the location, squamous cell carcinoma symptoms will differ, but some common ones include:
- Open sores with raised borders
- Scaly and dark skin patches
- New spots that resemble age spots
- Wart-like growths
- Horn-like growths
- Sores growing in scars
The additional risk factors for squamous cell carcinoma are the same as those for basal cell carcinoma.
The most commonly diagnosed type of kidney cancer, this carcinoma typically develops in the small tubes that line the kidneys. The cancerous cells grow into a mass and cause obstructions. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), men and people of color are twice as likely to develop this cancer. Symptoms can include:
- Loss of appetite or unexplained weight loss
- Pain in your side
- A lump in your abdomen
- Blood in your urine
This is a form of breast cancer in which cancerous cells develop in the lining of the milk ducts and haven’t yet spread into the surrounding breast tissue. DCIS is most common in women older than 50, who started menopause after 55, have dense breast tissue, did not breastfeed, became pregnant after age 30, or never carried a full-term pregnancy.
DCIS does not typically have any apparent symptoms, so yearly mammograms are the best way to diagnose this disease.
This form of breast cancer occurs when cancerous cells in the lining of the milk ducts break through and invade other breast tissue. From there, cancer can metastasize or spread to other parts of the body. As with DCIS, most people with IDC do not present any symptoms, so the cancer is typically detected during a mammogram.
Treatment for Carcinoma
Depending on the type, location, and extent of a carcinoma diagnosis, treatment options can include surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy.
Developing only in connective tissue, sarcoma is one of the rarer types of cancer. Sarcoma tumors can be found mainly in bones, muscles, cartilage, tendons, fat, nerves, and the blood vessels in your arms and legs. Although there are more than 50 types of sarcomas, there are two main categories: soft tissue sarcoma and bone sarcoma, also referred to as osteosarcoma.
Soft tissue sarcoma symptoms are hard to notice because they can grow anywhere in your body. There are, unfortunately, no screenings to test for these tumors before they cause issues.
On the other hand, osteosarcoma can show early symptoms, including swelling, pain around the affected bone, or even a limp if the sarcoma is in your leg.
Risk factors for sarcoma include exposure to radiation, exposure to certain chemicals, or damaged lymph nodes and fluid.
Treatment for Sarcoma
Like carcinoma, treatment for sarcoma will depend on what type you have, how developed it is, and if it has spread. But surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy are the most common options.
Lymphocytes are cells in your immune system that fight infections in the lymph nodes, bone marrow, thymus, spleen, and other parts of your body. Lymphoma begins in these cells and causes the lymphocytes to change and grow out of control.
The two main types of lymphoma are Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin. Both types of lymphoma involve different types of lymphocyte cells that grow at different rates and respond differently to treatments, but it is usually relatively treatable.
In most cases, causes for this specific kind of cancer are unknown, but some associated risk factors are:
- Being male
- Having a weakened immune system, had an organ transplant, or HIV/AIDS
- Having a family history of lymphoma
- For Hodgkin, being between the ages of 15-40 or older than 55
- For non-Hodgkin, being in your 60s or older
Fortunately, there are several warning signs of lymphoma, which can help diagnose it early and result in successful treatment. Some symptoms include swollen glands and lymph nodes, a persistent cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, fever, night sweats, and unexplained weight loss.
Treatment For Lymphoma
The treatments for the two types of lymphoma vary, but the main ones are chemotherapy, radiation therapy, immunotherapy, or targeted therapy. If these treatments are ineffective, then a stem cell transplant is usually the next recommended course of action.
One of the most common types of cancer among young adults, melanoma is a highly dangerous skin cancer that occurs in melanocytes, the cells that produce pigment and give color to your skin. Early diagnosis is crucial because melanoma can quickly spread to other parts of the body.
Look for anything new or changing on your skin. Remember that melanoma can show itself anywhere on your body, even in places never exposed to the sun. Experts recommend seeing your dermatologist annually and performing self-checks monthly. When performing monthly self-checks, remember to check for the rules of ABCDE:
- A – Asymmetry
- B – Border
- C – Color
- D – Diameter
- E – Evolving
Some risks associated with developing melanoma are indoor tanning beds, sunburns, pale skin, genetics, atypical moles, and having red hair.
Treatment for Melanoma
Treatment for melanoma depends on the location and the stage. If you are in Stage I or II, your doctor typically will remove the melanoma and surrounding tissue with wide excision surgery. If the melanoma has advanced past these stages, your doctor will recommend an immune checkpoint inhibitor, targeted therapy drugs, radiation, or chemotherapy.
Leukemia includes several types of cancer that appear in your blood. They occur when overabundant white blood cells begin to crowd out the platelets and red blood cells in your body. This imbalance will start to affect how your organs work, and over time, you may not have enough red blood cells or platelets to supply oxygen, fight infections, or clot your blood.
So far, no one knows the direct causes of leukemia, and symptoms are not always present in the early stages. Still, when symptoms develop, they may include weakness, fatigue, fever, infections that won’t go away, bruising or bleeding easily, swollen lymph nodes, unexplained weight loss, headaches, vomiting, and seizures.
There are four main types of leukemia:
- Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL): The most common form of childhood leukemia, ALL can quickly spread to the lymph nodes and central nervous system.
- Acute Myelogenous Leukemia (AML): This is the second most common form of childhood leukemia and one of the most common forms for adults.
- Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL): The second most common in adults, some forms of CLL can remain stable for years without treatment, while others require immediate medical care.
- Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia (CML): Most common in people 65 and older. Symptoms of CML are often unnoticeable, and you might not receive a diagnosis until you have a routine blood test.
Treatment for Leukemia
Treatment for leukemia depends on the type, how far it has spread, and how healthy you are. The main options are chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, stem cell transplant, biologic therapy, and targeted therapy.
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