The General Pathophysiology of Cancer

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  • 0:06 How Cancer Impacts the Body
  • 0:35 Physical Forces of Cancer
  • 2:22 Paraneoplastic Syndromes
  • 4:49 Hormonal Effects
  • 6:26 Other Effects of Cancer
  • 7:04 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

This lesson seeks to tell you about how cancer impacts the body in a wide variety of ways both directly and indirectly. We'll discuss things like pressure atrophy, paraneoplastic syndromes, peritonitis, and many other things.

How Cancer Impacts the Body

Everyone has heard of cancer. When I say the word 'tumor,' be it malignant or otherwise, people immediately think of a lump or bump. That's the generalization of cancer: lumps and bumps. But it's oh so much more - unfortunately, much more! How cancer affects the body goes way beyond clusters of cells growing in large masses, as this lesson will explore and point out with some examples.

Physical Forces of Cancer

The lumps and bumps that may grow as a result of cancer aren't there for looks. They can, due to their size, cause some serious physical damage. For instance, as a tumor grows larger and larger, it can cause something known as pressure atrophy, or the wasting away and destruction of tissues as a result of compressive forces.

One notable example of this is a meningioma. This is a benign tumor. You'd think the word 'benign' means it's innocent. The problem is that, as it gets larger and larger, it begins to compress the brain and compress important structures and eventually leads to seizures and the death of the individual it affects.

You can simulate pressure atrophy yourself by taking some Play-Doh and rolling it up into a ball. Thereafter, begin by taking a marble and slowly increasing the downward pressure onto the ball of Play-Doh. You'll begin to mush the dough as you do so; that's kind of what happens in pressure atrophy.

Another problem with lumps and bumps will have nothing to do with mushing of organs or tissues. A lump or bump may obstruct important things. One easy-to-picture example is of a big mass growing inside of the intestines. This mass will block the passage of food down the GI tract, leading to a potentially life-threatening back-up of food. In severe cases, it may cause the intestines to rupture and lead to a very painful death by way of infected peritonitis, or the inflammation of the membrane that lines the abdominal cavity and many of its organs.

Paraneoplastic Syndromes

There are plenty of other physical problems cancer can cause, such as pressure upon bone causing pain, interfering with the range of motion of a person, and so forth. There are too many to list, and we need to move on to something known as a paraneoplastic syndrome in order to appreciate the many different types of problems cancers can cause besides anatomical or physical problems. A paraneoplastic syndrome is an often systemic, or body-wide, clinical problem resulting directly from the presence of cancer cells that is not directly associated with their actual location or their metastasis.

If that sounds confusing, don't worry, I'm here to help. A cancer cell may cause the obstruction of the gastrointestinal tract if it's growing inside of it, just like I mentioned before. That is not a paraneoplastic syndrome because the effect that tumor's growth has on the body is limited to only the local area of the body where it is causing an obstruction. If the cancer spreads to another part of the GI tract and causes a new obstruction there, it's also not a paraneoplastic syndrome because, by definition, paraneoplastic syndromes aren't a result of cancer metastasis.

However, if the tumor growing in the GI tract secretes some kind of compound, like a hormone, that spreads around the body and causes your body's tissues, organs, immune system, or metabolism to go crazy, that is a paraneoplastic manifestation of that cancer. Because the spread of the molecule that causes this problem is not dependent on the actual location of the cancer cells themselves, only on the type of cancer that it is, as well as what it secretes or the body's immune response to it, it's therefore a paraneoplastic syndrome.

One real-world example of this is when a tumor known as a thymoma may release substances that mimic a compound in our body called ACTH. If there's too much ACTH in the body, it can lead to a disease called Cushing's syndrome.

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