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Everybody has cancer

In this section, I'll be looking at what cancer is, why it's not to be feared as much as you might think and what your body is already doing to fight its effects, even while you sleep!

What is cancer?

Cancer is actually a family of problems, all caused by misbehaving cells that refuse to die when ordered to and which then divide after their own kind, crowding out healthy cells and, eventually, causing major problems with normal body functions.

Normally, the cells in your body operate to a predefined lifecycle - creation, usefulness and then self-destruction. Millions of cells every minute of your life. The timescale can vary hugely from a few weeks to your entire lifetime, but the mechanisms are there for the cells to be controlled. If something goes wrong within a cell, a process called apoptosis kicks in, effectively a 'shutdown' command for the cell, which then destroys itself quickly.

With such a prodigious rate of cell division/creation, it's not surprising that there's scope for things going wrong. It turns out that cells often mutate, i.e get created with flaws, every minute of every day in each one of our bodies. Each potentially cancerous.

Why you shouldn't panic because of the presence of cancer cells

Mutating cells. Every day. In all our bodies! However, our bodies, if in perfect running order, are equipped with an immune system that has clean up mechanisms that can effect running repairs.

As we get older, the chances of a cancerous mutation which can elude the killer cells increase, plus our immune systems have themselves weakened. Add in a lifetime of exposure to carcinogens (chemicals around us that can damage our DNA) and it's easy to see why cancer becomes far more of a problem, the older we get.

Note that cancer in itself isn't necessarily a huge problem though - the number of clusters of cancerous cells in our body will grow as we get old but often go undetected because they don't cause a problem. For example, it has been estimated that half of all men have prostate cancer when they die. But only a small fraction of these will die because of the cancer, most will die of other causes - heart failure or a major disease, etc.

My single, over-arching point is not to get freaked out about the presence of cancer cells in your body - they're popping up every day of your life. What's important is understanding the ways your body fights these mutated cells and destroys them.

How your body fights cancerous cells

The wonderful human immune system has multiple safety measures to defend against cancerous cells. It has specialised genes that detect suspicious behaviour and shut down cell growth or trigger cell destruction. There are even specialised 'natural killer cells' that hunt down cancerous, mutating cells and release toxic granules that destroy them.