Starting at the beginning – CANCER 101

Each journey starts with the first step. So we start our journey into cancer awareness with that first step – answering the fundamental question what is cancer? Last time I put out there how many hundreds of kinds of cancer there are, and I got to thinking I sorta skipped the basics, so here goes. Cancer 101.

What is cancer? Well, we start with my old friend, the dictionary. WordNet Dictionary has this to say:

[n] type genus of the family Cancridae
[n] the fourth sign of the zodiac; the sun is in this sign from about June 21 to July 22
[n] a small zodiacal constellation in the northern hemisphere; between Leo and Gemini
[n] (astrology) a person who is born while the sun is in Cancer
[n] any malignant growth or tumor caused by abnormal and uncontrolled cell division; it may spread to other parts of the body through the lymphatic system or the blood stream

Does anyone else see a problem here? I sure do. The importance of the definitions is all backward!!!!! Seriously – when was the last time you went in a restaurant and ordered the cancer legs? Because when you go a little farther, and check out the word Cancridae – it is a family of CRABS!!! Okay, next we discover its the 4th sign of the Zodiac. I think many of us learned that from the horoscopes in the daily newspaper – my mother was a Cancer, my husband is a Cancer. Big deal – but another online site states that when used as an astrological sign, Cancer is actually a proper noun that should be capitalized. Do WHAT????? Capitalization denotes importance – more later.

The next definition states that it is a constellation of stars – well, gee, since the Zodiac involves the stars, that IS a bit redundant, and the following definition says its anyone born while the sun is in Cancer – see the previous definitions to explain that one. Also a tad redundant, but necessary I guess.

The last definition – [n] any malignant growth or tumor caused by abnormal and uncontrolled cell division; it may spread to other parts of the body through the lymphatic system or the blood stream – now we are getting somewhere! This is the definition we are looking for, isn’t it? Well, yes, but how did it get from this little hard shelled animal that makes a great salad, to star gazing, to this???? There is no co-relation of the definitions! Fine, dig deeper.

The next entry – all of this can be found at by the way – This one is comedic. CANCER is a 6 letter word that starts with C. NO KIDDING?????? Next, please.

Next we travel to the lovely world of synonyms. The exact entry – Synonyms: Cancer the Crab, Crab, Crab, genus Cancer, malignant neoplastic disease
Again, BACKWARDS! I would venture to say the reason for this is so no one gets confused and orders malignant neoplastic disease for supper and makes the waitress faint. I’m thinking that little term will require more time and attention – note made. We press on.

The lovely world of SEE ALSO! Under this entry we find, in alphabetical order – See Also: arthropod genus, Cancer borealis, Cancer irroratus, Cancer magister, cancer of the blood, Cancridae, carcinoma, constellation, Dungeness crab, family Cancridae, house, human, individual, Jonah crab, leucaemia, leukaemia, leukemia, lymphoma, malignant neoplasm, malignant tumor, mansion, metastatic tumor, mortal, person, planetary house, rock crab, sarcoma, sign, sign of the zodiac, somebody, someone, soul, star sign, zodiac
Nice! Better get that dictionary revved up, because if you look at the wrong definition, oh say the cute one about the group of stars, and tie that to metastatic tumor – really will take the bite out of the doctors words (and might get you to looking for a second opinion, since you know dang good and well that you don’t have any stars in your body). Yes, I’m being comedic, and there is nothing funny about this, but it could happen!

The above were from the “modern” dictionary. Next on the page you will find the entry from Webster’s – yes the good old Webster’s you used in school if you are over 30 – except its from the 1913 edition. Let’s see what they defined it as 100 years ago:
Webster’s 1913 Dictionary


\Can”cer\, n. [L. cancer, cancri, crab, ulcer, a sign of
the zodiac; akin to Gr. karki`nos, Skr. karka[.t]a crab, and
prob. Skr. karkara hard, the crab being named from its hard
shell. Cf. {Canner}, {Chancre}.]
1. (Zo[“o]l.) A genus of decapod Crustacea, including some of
the most common shore crabs of Europe and North America,
as the rock crab, Jonah crab, etc. See {Crab}.

2. (Astron.)
(a) The fourth of the twelve signs of the zodiac. The
first point is the northern limit of the sun’s course
in summer; hence, the sign of the summer solstice. See
(b) A northern constellation between Gemini and Leo.

3. (Med.) Formerly, any malignant growth, esp. one attended
with great pain and ulceration, with cachexia and
progressive emaciation. It was so called, perhaps, from
the great veins which surround it, compared by the
ancients to the claws of a crab. The term is now
restricted to such a growth made up of aggregations of
epithelial cells, either without support or embedded in
the meshes of a trabecular framework.

Note: Four kinds of cancers are recognized: (1) {Epithelial
cancer, or Epithelioma}, in which there is no
trabecular framework. See {Epithelioma}. (2) {Scirrhous
cancer, or Hard cancer}, in which the framework
predominates, and the tumor is of hard consistence and
slow growth. (3) {Encephaloid, Medullary, or Soft
cancer}, in which the cellular element predominates,
and the tumor is soft, grows rapidy, and often
ulcerates. (4) {Colloid cancer}, in which the cancerous
structure becomes gelatinous. The last three varieties
are also called {carcinoma}.

{Cancer cells}, cells once believed to be peculiar to
cancers, but now know to be epithelial cells differing in
no respect from those found elsewhere in the body, and
distinguished only by peculiarity of location and

{Cancer root} (Bot.), the name of several low plants, mostly
parasitic on roots, as the beech drops, the squawroot,

{Tropic of Cancer}. See {Tropic}.

Well, we still have the order issue, but look at the importance given the medical definition! It has depth, it actually defines! I really like this definition, archaic though it may be. Because it does what a definition should do – it explains. Granted, at that point there were only 4 defined types of cancers but it still does a much better job of breaking down what cancer is, what it does, and how it does it. Seems to me our linguists of the computer age could learn a bit from their predecessors.

I do see a problem here – we still don’t have any answers! Each answer just brings about a new question! We trudge on!

Next we find the “medical dictionary” definition – it is:

Medical Dictionary
Definition: abnormal cells that divide without control, which can invade nearby tissues or spread through the bloodstream and lymphatic system to other parts of the body.

Okay now we are getting somewhere – but where are we going? Talk about generic!!!! No real explanation. “Abnormal Cells”???? Okay, no clarification here. NEXT!!!!!

Oh, boy, the DREAM DICTIONARY! It says:

Dream Dictionary
Definition: Dreaming that you have cancer means hopelessness, grief, self-pity, and unforgiveness. You feel you are wasting your life away. This dream also represents areas in your life which are bothering you, disturbing you, and hurting you in some emotional way. Dreaming that someone has cancer indicates that you need to change your negative way of thinking before it creates a cancer in you. Start being more positive.

I am quite sure that this could be slightly modified, because it describes many of the emotions and reactions of a cancer patient.  I’m not dismissing it, but a couple of different word choices and it describes a real-life nightmare. Next, please!

Ah, the Biology Dictionary! Now maybe we are getting somewhere! What gems of wisdom does it impart?

Biology Dictionary
  1. A type of disease caused by cells that divide and grow uncontrollably, invading and disrupting other tissues and spreading to other areas of the body (metastasis).
  2. Cancer is an abnormal uncontrolled growth of tissue that has potential to spread to distant sites of the body. Cancer exerts its deleterious effect on the body by:
    • destroying the surrounding adjacent tissues: e.g. compressing nerves, eroding blood vessels, or causing perforation of organs
    • replacing normal functioning cells in distant sites: e.g. replacing blood forming cells in the bone marrow, replacing bones leading to increased calcium levels in the blood, or in the heart muscles so that the heart fails.

Okay, then, to dissect this, just like that poor unfortunate frog in 10th grade, according to this definition, cancer is cellular by nature, because it is caused by cells. It invades – got that part. It disrupts – yep, got that part. It is abnormal – I’ll agree. It destroys – oh, boy does it ever. It replaces normal functioning cells – I like that description! So far, the Biology Dictionary is doing really well – you put it with the 1913 Websters and the focus is becoming a bit less fuzzy.  What’s that you say – there is more??? Oh yes, friends and neighbors, there is MORE!

There is also the GLOSSARY!

Definition: Diseases in which abnormal cells divide and grow unchecked. Cancer can spread from its original site to other parts of the body and can be fatal.

Well, that’s pretty much the elementary school explanation. It covers all the bases in a very simple way. However, it contains one very significant word. Diseases. Plural. NOW we are getting somewhere remotely close to where we were.

There is one more entry on our dictionary page – the Thesaurus. It says:

Thesaurus Terms
Related Terms: benign tumor, blast, blight, callosity, callus, canker, carcinoma, corn, cyst, dry rot, excrescence, fungosity, fungus, growth, intumescence, malignant growth, metastatic tumor, mildew, mold, mole, morbid growth, moth, moth and rust, must, neoplasm, nevus, nonmalignant tumor, outgrowth, pest, proud flesh, rot, rust, sarcoma, smut, tumor, verruca, wart, wen, worm

39 separate terms, equated with cancer. I think this entry has been shortened. How can there be over 200 types of cancer, and only 39 terms? I think someone left work early the day they made this entry, but its a good start.

So what have we discovered today? I know the most important thing this girl has learned – I’d better budget for a new file cabinet. This is going to take more than one file folder to contain. I was shocked and amazed at the number of cancers I found, astounded by the multiple comments that my list didn’t include even more types of cancers, and now this. I have barely scratched the surface! In my previous blog, “A monumental task”, I equated the explanation and break down of cancer to moving Mt. Everest with a teaspoon. I am officially changing my analogy – I am not using a teaspoon – I’m using one of those little fragile plastic things that look more like a paddle that come with the tuna salad kits! Oh, well, onward and upward!

What have I figured out today? Well, I’ve discovered what I already knew, that cancer is cellular, in that it destroys or changes cells and cell structure. I have discovered that the dictionary reflects society, or vice versa, because it places the importance of cancer as a disease and as an illness below its importance, even with the use of a capital C, as a type of crab or a zodiac sign. Most importantly, I have discovered that I have a lot of work to do. Because we have gotten far too complacent, and accepted cancer, when the reality  is that the only way the word fits the definition is CANCER. Its scary, it has too many unknowns, too many forms, to many differing characteristics to maintain the unimportant cancer. From now on, it shall be CANCER – Malignant Neoplastic Disease. No more lurking in the shadows, hiding behind crustaceons and galaxies. I’m calling you out, CANCER – and I will expose you for what you are. Stick around and strap in – this ride could get interesting!

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