Cancer Overview: Causes, Prevention, and Treatment


  • Cancer is a disease where body cells grow uncontrollably and spread. There many types and can develop differently in men and women.
  • Early detection of cancer increases your chances of survival. Awareness of early symptoms, such as chronic fatigue, unexplained weight change, and chronic coughing, can be lifesaving.
  • Reducing your risk of developing cancer can be done by performing simple changes to your lifestyle.

What is Cancer?

When you hear the word “cancer,” what comes to your mind?

For most of us, it’s fear.

The fear of having to receive years of treatment. The fear of the cost of treatment. The fear of not knowing if the treatment will work.

Cancer is scary, but understanding cancer could help you control your fear. Understanding cancer could turn that fear into hope. In an important interview, one cancer expert, Michael Karlfeldt, ND, PhD, states, “You want to look at the basic foundation and then build up on there and then you can be successful in what you do.”

So, what exactly is cancer?

The National Cancer Institute defines cancer to be: “a disease in which some of the body’s cells grow uncontrollably and spread to other parts of the body.”

There are four main types of cancer cells:

  1. Carcinomas – cancer of the cell lining of your organs (the most common type of cancer)
  2. Sarcomas – cancer of the cells in your bones and soft tissues
  3. Leukemias – cancer of cells that form blood.
  4. Lymphomas – cancer that starts in your lymphatic system
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These types of cancer cells can cause over 100 different types of cancers. The National Cancer Institute reports that in women, the most common cancers are:

  • Breast
  • Lung
  • Colon or rectum
  • Uterine

In men, the most common cancers are:

  • Prostate
  • Lung
  • Colon or rectum
  • Bladder

In 2023, the American Cancer Society expects 2 million diagnoses of cancer in the United States alone. Further, the American Cancer Society reports that 40.9% of people will develop any form of cancer in their lifetime.

Thankfully, the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) reports that cancer survival rates are improving.

The most recent data available from the AACR states that the survival rate for all cancers have increased from 49% in the mid-1970s to almost 70% in 2017. That is an improvement of 21%.

The progress in understanding cancer symptoms, causes of cancer, prevention, and treatments is incredible. This blog will help you understand each of these so you can be armed with the knowledge you need.

Cancer Symptoms

What Causes Cancer?

Cells can have their DNA changed during cell growth and replication. This is called a “gene mutation.” Gene mutations are common, and your body often recognizes and repairs them.

DNA Mutation

If your body is not repairing these gene mutations, healthy cells can turn into cancer cells. When the cells divide uncontrollably, they are considered cancer.

According to the National Cancer Institute, cancerous gene mutations can cause:

  1. Changes in cell function
  2. Ability for cancer cells to hide from the immune system
  3. Cells to grow and divide uncontrollably
  4. Cells to begin invading other areas of the body
  5. Cancer cells to trick the body into helping them grow

All these changes are what make cancer so difficult to treat. The uncontrollable growth alone is challenging to deal with. But when the cancers trick your body into helping them grow, that is even more difficult to treat.

So, what causes these mutations?

Causes of Gene Mutations

There are many causes of the gene mutations that can lead to cancer. According to Stanford Medicine and the Center for Disease Control, these include:

  • Smoking
  • Excessive alcohol use
  • Poor diet (high in processed, fatty foods and sugars)
  • Exposure to toxic chemicals (pesticides, fertilizers, air pollution)
  • Genetics disorders (inherited mutations or other disorders like Wiskott-Aldrich and Beckwith-Wiedemann syndromes)
  • Exposure to viruses (Epstein-Barr virus and HIV for example)
  • Excessive sunlight exposure

You can limit your risk of developing cancer by acting to limit the influence of as many of these causes as possible.

Being able to diagnose cancer early is essential. A 2015 literature review of over 175 studies found that diagnosing cancer earlier increases the chances of survival. Early diagnosis allows treatment to start earlier, and the treatment may last less time.

The Mayo Clinic states that the early signs of cancer are:

  • Chronic Fatigue
  • Irregular lumps or thickening under your skin
  • Changes to moles or changes of skin color (yellowing, darkening irregularly, or redness)
  • Irregular weight change
  • Chronic coughing and/or trouble breathing
  • Unexplained muscle or joint pain
  • Unexplained bruises or bleeding
  • Constant indigestion after eating
  • Unexplained difficulty swallowing

Knowing the early symptoms of cancer could save your life. Be sure to consult your doctor if you are experiencing any of these symptoms.

Cancer Prevention

More important than anything is to get cancer screenings. Cancer screening is the best way to catch cancer early and improve your likelihood of survival.

In addition to cancer screenings, there are lifestyle changes you can make to reduce your cancer risk.

Quit Smoking or Avoid Smoking

Cigarette smoking is a key cause of lethal cancers. Approximately 80-90% of deaths due to lung cancer are caused by smoking or secondhand smoke. Cigarette smoking has also been linked to cancers of the mouth and throat, liver, stomach, and other areas of the body.

You can access the Mayo Clinic’s recommendations for how to quit smoking here.

Limit or Stop Consuming Alcohol

Alcohol use has been found to contribute to up to 3.7% of all cancer deaths in the United States. One key report found that greater use of alcohol was associated with a higher risk of developing cancer.

Avoiding alcohol or limiting alcohol intake will reduce your risk of developing cancer.

Eat a Healthy Diet

Harvard reports that a healthy diet can reduce the risk of cancer. One study reports that healthy eating habits reduces cancer risk by up to 20%.
Here are Harvard’s recommendations for a healthy diet:

  • Limit “fast” food
  • Limit red and processed meats
  • Limit sugary foods and drinks
  • Eat more whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and beans

Eating this type of diet can improve inflammation, microbiome health, and reduce the amount of stress on your body.


Physical activity is known to reduce the risk of cancer. The National Cancer Institute reported that exercise can reduce the risk of many cancers including:

  • Bladder Cancer
  • Breast Cancer
  • Colon Cancer
  • Endometrial Cancer
  • Esophageal Cancer
  • Kidney Cancer
  • Stomach Cancer

The recommended amount of physical activity includes

  • Cardiovascular exercises (running, hiking, swimming, biking, etc.) for 150-300 minutes every week
  • Strength training (weightlifting) at least 2 days per week
  • Balance training (Pilates, yoga, calisthenics, etc.) to supplement both cardiovascular and strength training

These four lifestyle modifications can help you reduce your risk of developing cancer.

Cancer Treatments

If you have been diagnosed with cancer, it is important to know what treatment options are available to you. The most common forms of cancer treatment are:

  1. Surgery – doctors cut out the cancer
  2. Chemotherapy – medicines are given to shrink or kill cancers
  3. Radiation Therapy – radiation is used to kill the cancer
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Depending on the type of cancer, you may have the option to undergo alternative therapies including:

  • Hormone Therapy
  • Hyperthermia
  • Immunotherapy
  • Photodynamic Therapy
  • Stem Cell Transplants
  • Other Targeted Therapies

Experts like Michael Karlfeldt, ND, PhD, states that it is important to trust the process and accept where you are. Because if you’re stressed, Dr. Karlfeldt states, “You get yourself in that survival mode, you know, fight or flight mode. And what you’re doing then is that you are producing more cortisol, you’re producing stress hormones which suppress the immune system which will trigger and triggers more inflammation and cancer is an inflammatory process… By being scared of facing death or trying to do everything you can to stop death from occurring, you put yourself at a place where you’re less likely to succeed.”


Cancer is a major health challenge. Alarmingly, nearly half of all people are at risk of developing cancer throughout life. But there’s hope. Survival rates have surged from 49% in the mid-1970s to nearly 70% in the mid-2010s. Prevention of cancer is extremely important. Know what you can do to embrace a healthy lifestyle. Finally, early detection is crucial and can increase your chances of survival. This paired with the variety of treatment options offer a brighter future for patients.

Cancer Videos from DrTalks

The Financial Burden of Cancer & Your Options

Overcoming Cancer Fear, Checkmate Diagnosis

Spirituality & Cancer Diagnosis

How to Starve Cancer; The Little Known Proven Principles


National Cancer Institute. (2021). What Is Cancer? National Cancer Institute; Cancer.gov. Read it here.

National Cancer Institute. (2018). Common Cancer Sites – Cancer Stat Facts. SEER. Read it here.

Siegel, R. L., Miller, K. D., Wagle, N. S., & Jemal, A. (2023). Cancer statistics, 2023. CA: a cancer journal for clinicians, 73(1), 17–48. Read it here.

American Cancer Society. (2023). Lifetime Probability of Developing and Dying from Cancer, 2017-2019 (Cancer Facts & Figures 2023 Supplemental Data). American Cancer Society; Cancer.org. Read it here.

CancerProgressReport.org. (2022). AACR Cancer Progress Report. Philadelphia: American Association for Cancer Research. Read it here.

Neal, R. D., Tharmanathan, P., France, B., Din, N. U., Cotton, S., Fallon-Ferguson, J., et al. (2015). Is increased time to diagnosis and treatment in symptomatic cancer associated with poorer outcomes? Systematic review. British journal of cancer, 112 Suppl 1(Suppl 1), S92–S107. Read it here.

Mayo Clinic Staff. (2018). Cancer – Symptoms and causes. Mayo Clinic. Read it here.

Stanford Health Care. (2014). What Causes Cancer? Stanford Health Care; stanfordhealthcare.org. Read it here.

Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019). Cancer. CDC; cdc.gov. Read it here.

Nelson, D. E., Jarman, D. W., Rehm, J., Greenfield, T. K., Rey, G., Kerr, W. C., Miller, P., Shield, K. D., Ye, Y., & Naimi, T. S. (2013). Alcohol-attributable cancer deaths and years of potential life lost in the United States. American journal of public health, 103(4), 641–648. Read it here.

IARC Working Group on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans. (2010). Alcohol Consumption and Ethyl Carbamate. Lyon (FR): International Agency for Research on Cancer; (IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans, No. 96.) Read it here.

Harvard School of Public Health (2021). Preventing Cancer. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health; The Nutrition Source. Read it here.

Grosso, G., Bella, F., Godos, J., Sciacca, S., Del Rio, D., Ray, S., Galvano, F., and Giovannuci E.L. (2017). Possible role of diet in cancer: systematic review and multiple meta-analyses of dietary patterns, lifestyle factors, and cancer risk. Nutrition Reviews, 75(6): 405-19. Read it here.

National Cancer Institute. (2020). Physical Activity and Cancer. National Cancer Institute; Cancer.gov. Read it here.

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Daniel Chantigian
Daniel Chantigian, MS
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When it comes to complex scientific or medical topics, Daniel can successfully communicate with any audience via writing, social media, lecturing, and one-on-one discussions. Over the past decade, he developed these skills as a researcher at the University of Minnesota and the Mayo Clinic, as a lecturer at the University...

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