Is everyone born with cancer cells? Meaning of cancer, how it spreads and causes

The trillions of cells in our bodies are prone to damage, with some of them undergoing mutations that can lead to cancer in some people. While most human cells have the potential to turn cancerous, humans are not typically born with cancer.

Image of a nurse carrying a crying newborn baby

Key takeaways:

  • Cancer is a medical condition that occurs when uncontrolled cell growth leads to the formation of malignant tumors. There are different forms and types of cancer, with more prevalence in adults than in children.
  • Humans are not typically born with cancer cells. However, our body has over 30 trillion cells that are constantly multiplying to produce new cells. Certain mutations in these cells can lead to cancer development.
  • Also, some gene mutations that some babies get in the womb can increase the risk of cancer in adulthood.

With cancer cases increasing globally, scientists and research institutes are seeking better treatment methods for the medical condition. While cancer has no definite cure yet, there are some treatments that helps achieve remission in some types of cancer, depending on the stage.

This article provides answers to questions about cancer and the human cell, whether humans are born with cancer, and the causes of cancer.

Humans are not born with cancer cells

Humans are not born with "cancer cells" specifically. However, we are all born with cells that have the potential to become cancerous especially in the presence of certain risk factors such as exposure to radiation, chemicals, infectious agents, and a family history of cancer.

Our body is made of different cells that perform various vital functions. These cells receive instructions from the DNA on the specific task to perform. However, in millions of people, DNA in cells located in different parts of the body gets damaged, which causes them to break out of the standard body mechanism.

The damage causes cells that were once normal to turn (mutate) into potential cancer cells. A mutation is a change that occurs in the DNA sequence of an organism that makes it more likely to develop a specific type of cancer. Even though humans are generally not born with cancer in their bodies, some people are predisposed to cancer because they were born with a gene mutation inherited from their parents at conception.

This mutation alone does not cause cancer (and not everyone with it will develop cancer). However, it always initiates the first step in making the cells cancerous. This makes people with such mutations more susceptible to cancer than those who do not have the mutation.

Cells failing to divide or die when they should, can lead to cancer.

Meaning of cancer

Cancer is a group of diseases caused by uncontrolled cell growth. When these cells divide and grow abnormally, they form malignant tumors. Cancer cells have lost the ability to follow the body's normal functioning.

How does this happen?

There are different cells in the body responsible for performing various functions. These cells are constantly working, dying off, and being replaced by new cells. All these activities are under conscious control by the body due to the presence of DNA, which is a code of instructions that controls the actions of the cells, telling them when to die or divide. Cancer cells break out of the standard mechanism when an error in the DNA (DNA mutation) occurs.

These damaged cells begin to grow rapidly and form tumors in the body. This can happen in any part of the body—it could be in the lungs, colon, prostate, breast, or blood cells. They usually start as benign (harmless) tumors and grow to become cancerous.

When these cells come together, grow, and spread rapidly, they are called malignant or metastatic tumors. Cancer is a metastatic tumor because it often spreads to adjacent tissues and organs, making it life-threatening. This spread to adjacent cells is what differentiates malignant cells from benign cells.

Cancer can occur at any age, but it is more common in older people.

How cancer starts, grows and spreads

Cancer starts when there is damage to the DNA (mutation), which occurs as a result of an error in cell division.

The damaged DNA cells produce cells that look and act differently from the normal cell. If these abnormal cells are few and localized, they might not be considered harmful to the body.

However, these cells often start to increase and divide. As the cells grow, they begin to create their own blood vessels. These blood vessels supply the cells with oxygen, glucose, and hormones.

The hormones carry messages to the cells, causing them to keep taking the wrong actions. The oxygen and glucose function to keep the cells alive; thus, they can spread to other parts of the body.

Cancer cells do not stick together like normal cells; they usually spread to nearby organs and tissues. This is called a local spread. The spread becomes systemic in the advanced cancer stage, meaning that it spreads from nearby organs to distant ones through the blood or lymphatic circulation.

Differences between cancer cells and normal cells

Cancer cells behave differently from normal cells, as shown in the table below.

Difference between cancer cells and normal cells

Cancer cells

Normal cells

They divide rapidly and continuously leading to solid tumors

They divide normally and perform specific and useful functions

They are characterized by uncontrolled growth of cells

They are characterized by controlled growth of cells

They spread into adjacent tissues and organs

They do not spread into adjacent tissues and organs

They present with abnormal sizes and shape

They have normal sizes and shapes

Cancer cells do not repair or die when they get old (Apoptosis). By not undergoing Apoptosis, they have an increased life span compared to normal cells.

Normal cells repair or die when they get old. They do not exceed their average life span.

Cancer cells do not stick together, making them float away (migrate) to other parts of the body

Normal cells stick together and do not float away

Cancer cells usually evade the immune system. They normally go undetected until they form a tumor.

Normal cells are easily identified by the immune system. When they die, the immune system engulfs them, clearing them away.

Causes of cancer

Changes to genes (genetic mutations) is the primary cause of cancer. Such mutations can occur as a result of interactions between genetic factors and risk factors, like:

  • Hereditary or genetic anomalies
  • Exposure to infectious agents such as human papillomavirus (HPV) - viruses are a major cause of liver cancer and cervical cancer
  • Health conditions like human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), hepatitis B, C, D,
  • Smoking (which is the leading cause of lung cancer).
  • Exposure to toxic agents, chemical products, radiation, and the sun
  • Harmful behavior like the consumption of alcohol and tobacco
  • Too much fatty food and a diet low in fruits and vegetables

When to see a doctor

Cancer symptoms depend on the specific cancer type and stage and also vary from one individual to another.

To diagnose cancer, healthcare professionals examine their patients and run tests, such as imaging tests, urine and blood tests, and physical exams. However, a biopsy is the definite diagnostic method to confirm cancer.

The following signs and symptoms call for concern, and you should see your doctor if you experience them:

  • The appearance of blood in different places—if you consistently cough out blood or notice blood in your urine—could be a sign of lung, bladder, or kidney cancer. However, blood in the urine could also result from a urinary tract infection.
  • Unexplained weight loss is a sign commonly associated with cancer and requires medical attention.
  • Unusual skin changes is also another cause of concern. If you notice the appearance of discolored moles on your skin with an irregular shape, reach out to your healthcare provider.
  • Persistent and unexplained headaches could also be a cause for concern. Get urgent medical care if you experience headaches accompanied by seizures.
  • Some cancerous tumors appear on the skin. These tumors can be commonly felt in the breast, testicles, lymph nodes, or soft tissues as lumps.

As mentioned earlier, these symptoms vary from person to person. It is always advisable to visit your doctor when you start noticing unusual things in your body.

Wrap up

Cancerous cells occur as a result of unregulated cell growth. These cancerous cells may go undetected for a long time. This is why it is important to go for regular screenings, like cervical cancer screenings, to detect cancerous cells on time.

While humans are not born with "cancer cells" in their bodies, all humans are born with cells with the potential of turning into cancerous cells.

The signs and symptoms of cancer vary from one individual to another. So, it is always best to speak with your doctor whenever you notice unusual symptoms in your body.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How are cancer cells different from normal cells?

Cancer cells are different from normal cells, in that cancer cells grow and divide abnormally, do not die off when they are supposed to, appear in abnormal shapes and sizes and spread to other parts or organs of the body.

Is cancer mainly genetic?

Yes, cancer is a genetic disease because genes are affected in this condition. Some types of cancer run in families due to inherited genes or medical conditions. For instance, families with inherited Lynch syndrome are at a higher risk of developing colon and endometrial cancer. Also, some people are born with inherited DNA mutations that increase their risk of developing cancer later in life.

However, it is noteworthy to add that not all cancers are inherited; in fact, most cancers are acquired.

Is cancer in your DNA?

The DNA consists of the genes, which have the instructions to make specific proteins and play important role in the function and structure of the body. Cancer is present in some people's DNA when changes in their genes cause errors as their cells divide.


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