Cancer FAQ

Q: What is cancer?

A: Cancer is what happens when a group of cells grows uncontrollably and in an abnormal and disorderly way. It is really a result of what happens when, for reasons that are only partly understood, the normal growth-control mechanisms fail. Cancer cells have two properties that make them dangerous: they can invade into neighboring tissues; and they can spread to distant areas of the body, forming secondary tumors or metastases.

Q: Why do some people get cancer and not others?

A: In a few cancers (such as retinoblastoma) and in a small proportion of the more common cancers (such as a small proportion of breast and ovarian cancers), there seems to be an inherited factor that we can (partly) identify. In most cancers we assume that a person’s cells have a low threshold for becoming malignant, and thus that he or she will develop a cancer with relatively less prompting by a trigger (such as cigarettes or the sun) than another person whose cells have a higher threshold and who may be able to tolerate more exposure to a trigger without developing a cancer.

Q: Is there an epidemic of cancer?

A: Yes. An epidemic means a very rapid increase in the amount of the disease.

Q: Do we get cancer from what we eat?

A: Yes!

Q: Are chemicals and pollutants causing cancer?

A: Yes!

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Q: Does cigarette smoke really cause cancer?

A: Yes. Cigarettes cause approximately 95 percent of cancers of the lung and are a major factor in cancers of the bladder, pancreas, mouth, larynx, esophagus, and kidney.

Q: Can cancer be prevented?

A: We think a lot of it can. The established preventive methods (including refraining from smoking, avoiding sun damage, sensible sexual behavior, and eating a good diet would reduce the incidence of cancer dramatically.

Q: Why does the diagnosis seem to be so delayed in so many cases?

A: Cancer cells can multiply to produce literally billions of cells before a tumor becomes big enough to detect. That is why prevention is so important.

Q: Why isn’t there a simple, universal test for cancer?

A: Because cancer cells are very similar to normal cells, and a cancer begins with a very small number of cells. In a small number of cancers, certain tests can detect early changes: the best example is cancer of the cervix (the Pap test).

Q: Why do people with the same cancer get different treatment and have different problems?

A: A lot depends on the stage of the disease and on the particular individual.

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Q: Does conventional treatment work?

A: Due to the abysmal rates of success for Chemotherapy, Surgery, and Radiation, we cannot in good conscience recommend them.

Q: Why is the treatment so awful?

A: Treatment is so awful mostly because cancer cells are only slightly different from normal cells. In this respect, cancers are totally different from, say, bacterial infections such as pneumonia or tuberculosis. Because bacteria are completely different from our body’s cells, antibiotics can kill them and not affect us very much. But because cancer cells are very like our normal cells, in order to kill them, conventional medicine risks doing considerable damage to normal cells or tissues.

Q: Can fatigue be prevented?

A: There is no way to prevent fatigue because the exact cause of fatigue is not known. However, there are ways to decrease the effect of fatigue, such as conserving energy. If your fatigue is related to anemia (low red blood cell count), there are ways to raise your level and relieve fatigue.

Q: How does fatigue affect a person?

A: Fatigue affects people differently. In addition, there are various degrees of fatigue. Some people may find that they are unable to do simple things that they used to do, such as climbing stairs without stopping or holding onto the handrail. Others may have trouble standing up in the shower, and get too tired, so a shower chair is helpful. Changes in mental processes can happen, and cause “fuzzy thinking.” It may be hard to concentrate or focus on things such as reading or watching television. Visiting with family, cooking, or other activities that you used to enjoy before starting cancer treatment may now be too exhausting. However, there are tips to help conserve your energy for the activities that are important to you.

Q: How can I ask my family to help me?

A: This may be one of the hardest things to do. Most family members want to help and are just waiting to do something. Often they feel helpless, and afraid to ask if they help. By being very specific about what you would like them to do, it will make it much easier for them to help. Sometimes, a family meeting is a good way to tell family what is going on, and to organize the tasks and activities. A family meeting may also be helpful when family members may not understand that fatigue is a real problem related to cancer and its treatment. Your doctor, nurse or a social worker can help with this, too.

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Q: I’m so tired. What can I do?

A: Fatigue is very common with cancer. Usually a full assessment is done to make sure that other treatable causes aren’t overlooked, like hypothyroidism (too little thyroid hormone), anemia (decreased red blood cell count), depression, hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) or dehydration (having too little fluid in the body). Cuaron and Thompson (2000) list things that have helped other people receiving interferon who get fatigue: distraction (daydreaming, laughter, meditation, prayer, reading, soft music, soaking in the tub, watching TV, writing); saving energy (avoiding exertion, getting extra sleep or taking a quick nap, relaxing, resting or sitting quietly, planning activities, slowing down); using energy (exercise, swimming, walking); medical treatments (blood transfusion, pain control); other (eating food and drinking ice water).

Q: When should I call the nurse or doctor about my fatigue?

A: You should call your nurse or doctor if any of the following occur:

  • Feel dizzy
  • Lose your balance
  • Have trouble sitting, standing or walking
  • Sleep all the time
  • Can’t sleep at night
  • All of a sudden feel much more fatigued
  • Hurt yourself
  • Need help talking with your family about your feelings or needs
  • Any new problem that you need help with

Q: Is fatigue a real symptom?

A: Yes, fatigue is a real symptom. Fatigue can lead to a decrease in quality of life. Factors such as treatment, anemia (low red blood cell count), stress, difficulty sleeping, and poor nutrition can all add to fatigue.

Q: How can I get the best from my doctor?

A: Doctor-patient relationships are similar in some respects to marriages: some are good and some are bad, and a lot depends on the people involved. The key to getting the best from your medical team is to present your problems as clearly and accurately as you can and to clarify exactly what it is you want t o know and what you need.

Q: Why are we all so frightened of cancer?

A: Probably because the other major threats to our health have faded somewhat. Until the 1940s we used to be afraid of syphilis and tuberculosis; before that it was cholera and smallpox. Currently, cancer and the infectious disease AIDS are occupying the roles of humankind’s bogeyman diseases. Cancer has not changed very much, but our perception of it has.

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Q: Can attitudes or stress cause cancer?

A: Not as far as we know. In fact, the idea that the cancer “personality” or a bad attitude contributes to the cause of cancer may be part of the ancient human habit of blaming the patient for the disease.

Q: Can a change in diet alter the course of cancer?

A: Yes.

Q: With so many advances, how come there’s no progress?

A: There is tremendous – and increasing – progress in our understanding of cancer, but the gap between understanding and conventional treatment (between laboratory and bedside) is a wide one. Because stories about cancer research are often reported in the media as if that gap were small, people tend to expect big changes in treatment. This tendency is partly responsible for the widespread feeling of disappointment with the impact of cancer research. Conventional medicine hasn’t made any real breakthroughs in many decades now.

Q: Will there ever be a cure for cancer?

A: Probably not a cure for everyone. That being said, the success rate of our clinic in curative treatments in unparalleled anywhere in the world.

Q: Can our species ever be free of cancer?

A: Probably not.

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Q: Will my hair grow back?

A: Yes, hair loss from chemotherapy is temporary. It will grow back, usually after therapy is finished, and if the treatment didn’t kill you. In some cases, hair can grow back during therapy. Usually the texture of the hair is different for the first year, soft and curly. Then, after a year or so, it usually goes back to how it was before you took chemotherapy if you’re still alive.

Q: Is it normal to have a lot of side effects from chemotherapy?

A: Yes. The side effects occur because the chemotherapy hurts normal cells that divide frequently, as well as the cancer cells that aren’t MDR (Multi Drug Resistant).

Q: Are the side effects of chemotherapy worse than the cancer?

A: Due to the significant lack of effectiveness of chemotherapy, we question why anyone who is truly informed would choose to poison themselves.

Q: Does everyone with cancer get anemia?

A: No. Some cancers are linked with anemia, like multiple myeloma or leukemia. Other cancers are associated with an anemia called “anemia of chronic disease”. Anemia of chronic disease can also occur with diseases like rheumatoid arthritis. Treatment such as chemotherapy or radiation therapy, can also cause anemia.

Finally, if the body doesn’t have enough nutrients to make the red blood cell, a person can get anemia. For example, if you have bleeding from the intestine and lose red blood cells, you can lose a lot of iron. This is called iron deficiency anemia.

Q: What effect does alcohol have?

A: There are many different types and causes of anemia. Often people who drink a lot of alcohol don’t eat right. That, together with the alcohol itself, leads to a decreased supply of folic acid in the body. The body can’t store much folic acid, so it has to be taken in daily, through food or a pill. The body needs folic acid (folate) in order to make the red blood cells. If there isn’t enough, then the person gets anemia. People with this type of anemia can also get other types of anemia too.

Q: How is anemia treated?

A: This depends upon the cause of the anemia. If the anemia is caused by not enough building blocks in the body, like iron, folic acid, or vitamin B12, the treatment includes adding these back to the body. Red blood cells can then be made, and the blood values return to normal. If the cause is chemotherapy, or sometimes radiation, then red blood cell transfusions or injections of epoietin alfa can be given. Erythropoietin is a natural hormone made by the kidneys that tells the bone marrow to make more red blood cells.

Q: Should everyone get a second opinion?

A: Many people with cancer get a second opinion from another doctor. There are many reasons to get a second opinion, including if the person is not comfortable with the treatment decision, if the type of cancer is rare, if there are different ways to treat the cancer, or if the person is not able to see a cancer expert.