Is everyone born with cancer cells?

Cancer develops over time due to unregulated cell growth. And, because it can affect both old and young, people often wonder if humans are born with cancer cells.

A woman with cancer carried into the hospital for chemotherapy

Everyone is not 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.

Cases of cancer keep increasing globally because of the increasing population, aging populations, environmental factors, and other risk factors like smoking. Despite the increasing number of cases, only a few people have basic information about cancer.

There are different forms and types of cancer, each varying with individuals. Cancers are less common in children than in adults. Also, most childhood cancers have unknown causes.

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 may cure you, depending on the type of cancer and the stage.

This article will discuss all about how cancer grows and spreads, its causes, and if humans are born with cancer cells. It will also discuss the difference between cancer cells and normal cells and when to see your doctor for cancer concerns.

How humans are not born with cancer cells

Humans are not born with "cancer cells" specifically. However, we are all born with cells and all cells 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, some of those cells are bound to have damaged DNA, which causes them to break out of the standard body mechanism.

The damage causes cells that were once normal to turn into potential cancer cells.

Even though humans are generally not born with cancer in their bodies, some people are predisposed to cancer because they are born with a mutation. A mutation is a change that occurs in the DNA sequence of an organism that makes them more likely to develop a specific type of cancer.

This mutation alone cannot cause 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.

Humans are not born with cancer cells, but they are born with cells that can turn to cancer cells. (Photo by Christian Bowen on Unsplash)

Meaning of cancer

Cancer is a group of diseases caused by uncontrolled cell growth. They form as 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, and being replaced by new cells.

All these activities are under conscious control by the body due to the presence of DNA (a code of instructions that controls the actions of the cells, telling them when to die or divide). Cancer cells usually 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 are together, grow, and spread rapidly, they are called malignant tumors. Cancer is a malignant tumor because it often spreads to adjacent tissues and organs, becoming life-threatening. This spread to adjacent cells is what differentiates malignant cells from benign cells.

Cancer can happen at any stage, so both young and old can have it. However, DNA mutations become more common at an advanced age.

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 (sugar), 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.

However, cancer spread can also be systemic. In that case, cancer spreads to distant organs through the blood or lymphatic circulation.

Differences between cancer cells and normal cells

One of the fastest way for cancer to spread is through the blood stream

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

Difference between cancer cells and normal cells

Cancer cells

Normal cells

Divide rapidly and continuously leading to solid tumors

Divide normally and perform specific and useful functions

Characterized by uncontrolled growth of cells

Characterized by controlled growth of cells

Spread into adjacent tissues and organs

Do not spread into adjacent tissues and organs

Show abnormal sizes and shape

Show 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 initial life span.

Cancer cells do not stick together making them to float away 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 takes them away.

Causes of cancer

Different things can cause or increase the risk of cancer development, such as:

  • 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 signs vary from one individual to another. Also, some of the signs overlap with other underlying health conditions. Therefore, signs and symptoms alone are not reliable for diagnosing cancer.

To diagnose cancer, you should see a healthcare professional who will examine you and run tests such as a biopsy to determine the presence of cancerous cells. This is the only definite way to diagnose 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, it 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. If you notice a rapid weight loss without any reason (e.g., stress), you should immediately reach out to your health care provider.
  • Unusual skin change 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 of concern. This becomes even more concerning when it is 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 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 often go undetected for a long 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.

Signs and symptoms of cancer vary from one individual to another. However, you should always speak with your doctor whenever you notice unusual symptoms in your body.


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