Patient Resources

Cancer Biology

Fundamentally, cancer is a disease of your genes, the instructions inside your cells that tell them what to do.

All cancers result from damage to your genes causing your cells to grow uncontrollably, ultimately spreading throughout the body in a process called metastasis. It is this process that causes cancer to be so deadly. When caught early, when the cancer is localized to one spot, it is easier to treat. Once cancer has metastasized, it becomes much more difficult to treat. Though they are found in many different organs and tissues, many cancers have similar, recurrent damage (also called mutations) in specific genes that can allow the cancer to grow and spread. These mutations are often in genes that control processes like how the cell uses energy, how often the cell can divide and grow, and how the cell handles mutations and other forms of genetic damage. By studying these mutations, researchers at the LCRC can understand how cancer works and design new and better treatments.

Cancers, though often grouped by the physical location or organ they arise in, can be very different from person to person. The mutations in a cancer can help physicians and researchers classify the disease in terms of aggressiveness and what treatments may be most likely to work. Just as unique as the cancer itself can be where it comes from. For those cancers that we know the root causes of, they can sometimes be traced to specific mutations that trend in families. These hereditary cancers include some types of breast and ovarian cancers as well as colon cancer. Other cancers are linked to specific behavioral or environmental causes, like lung cancer’s link to smoking or asbestos. We also know that some general lifestyle trends, like obesity and lack of exercise or overuse of alcohol, can make people more prone to certain types of cancer. However, many cancers arise with no known or obvious cause, either familial or environmental. Researchers at the LCRC are investigation what causes these cancers, examining their progress in advanced model systems and designing possible treatments for them.