By Darren Saunders, Garvan Institute
FEW things strike fear into people more than the word cancer, and with good reason. While improvements in cancer therapy and advances in palliative care mean that the illness does not always lead to inevitable and painful death as it once did, approximately one in three of us will get some form of cancer in our lifetime.
Cancer accounted for about three in ten deaths (over 42,000) in Australia last year. It was the second most common cause of death after cardiovascular disease. Aside from the obvious personal cost, cancer is expensive, with direct costs to our national health system running at $3.8 billion a year.
The US National Cancer Institute defines cancer as a disease in which abnormal cells divide without control and are able to invade other tissues.
Our bodies contain over 200 different types of cell, the basic units of life. Each of these has specific functions and is organised into the various organs such as the lungs, liver, skin, and brain. To keep these organs functioning, cells grow and divide to replace other cells as they age and die.
The exquisite balance between cell growth and death is normally kept under tight control by an incredibly complex genetic network. Mutations in the DNA of genes controlling the network can disrupt this balance, causing an accumulation of excess cells, which forms a tumour…Read more