Understanding and Managing Cancer

Christian Stephens
Understanding and Managing Cancer

What is Cancer?

Cancer is the general name for a group of more than 100 diseases in which cells in a part of the body begin to grow out of control. Some cancers are very treatable and can be cured. Some cancers become chronic diseases requiring treatment over many years. Some cancers are quickly terminal. Cancers left untreated can cause serious illness, disability and even death. While the incidence of cancer increases with age, it is not a normal part of aging. 

Cancer can cause almost any physical or behavioral symptom. A few of the many possible symptoms are: fever, extreme tiredness (fatigue), pain, skin changes or unexplained weight loss. The symptoms will depend on where the cancer is, how advanced it is and how much it affects organs or tissues. If a cancer has spread (metastasized), symptoms may appear in different parts of the body. As a cancer grows, it can begin to push on nearby organs, blood vessels and nerves, causing new symptoms. If the cancer is in a critical area, such as certain parts of the brain, even the smallest tumor can cause symptoms such as behavioral changes. 

How is cancer treated? 

Treatment depends on the type and stage of cancer. Surgery, chemotherapy 

(medications) and radiation are the three main types of cancer treatment. A person with cancer may have none, some, or all of these treatments. 


When the cancer is a tumor, surgery is often the first treatment. Sometimes only 

part of the cancer can be removed. In this case, a person will often have radiation or chemotherapy as well. 


Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy drugs can be 

given intravenously (IV or into a vein) or orally. Chemotherapy drugs travel through the bloodstream to reach cancer cells that may have metastasized (spread) from the tumor to other places. 


Treatment with high-energy rays (such as x-rays) are often used to kill cancer 

cells. The procedure is much like that of having an x-ray and is painless, although some people have side effects from radiation. The side effects depend largely on the location of the radiation treatment. 

What should I be alert for? 

It is important to be alert for signs of distress that might tell you that something is wrong. New symptoms might suggest a worsening of the cancer or a reaction to the treatment. As each cancer and treatment causes different symptoms, ask the physician what symptoms you should look for. It is important to contact a physician as soon as possible about any new symptoms. 

Medication side effects: If a person is taking medication for cancer, ask the pharmacist or physician about possible side effects and what you should look for and report. Each person reacts a bit differently to medications. What works for one person, may not work for someone else. Fortunately, there are usually several medicines that can be used for the same purpose. This means it is important to communicate problems with medication to the doctor so the medication can be switched to one that works for them.

What are some tips to manage cancer?

  • Remember that cancer is not contagious.
  • Cancer is often a treatable disease. Offer words of encouragement and hope. With assistance from the physician or other health professionals, family and group home staff can help the person understand their treatment options.
  • Pain can often be controlled. Talk to a health care provider about your role in pain control.
  • Good nutrition is important, especially during chemotherapy and radiation therapy. A dietitian and the person’s physician or oncologist (cancer specialist) can help you plan a diet that will assure proper nutrition, even when the person may not have an appetite.
  • There may be good days and bad days with symptoms coming and going. Try to be patient and understand the person’s needs each day.
  • Coordinate visits to the radiology or chemotherapy units prior to treatment. Meet with oncology (cancer care) staff prior to the treatments to help them understand the individual’s communication preferences, fears and any other tips that might help everyone have a better appointment.
  • Ask doctors for visual materials to help the person understand the diagnosis and treatment.