It’s a hard question to ask, but sometimes it’s necessary.
Cancer is almost unspeakably awful, from the potential hardships of treatment to the prospect of leaving behind grieving loved ones. This horrible illness has a sweeping reach. An estimated 1.7 million people in the United States were diagnosed with cancer in 2018, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Around 610,000 people were estimated to die from the disease by the end of the year.
While the emotional and physical tolls of cancer are often clear, it can be confusing as to how, exactly, cancer kills someone. Is it due to the cancer itself? Or is it usually a more indirect result of how cancer can affect a person’s health? And does it vary depending on the type of cancer a person has?
This can be a terrifying topic to discuss with a doctor or loved one, depending on your situation. But sometimes you need answers to even the scariest questions. Here, we spoke to several oncologists to explain how cancer can lead to death.
Cancer happens when cells grow out of control.
It can be easy to forget how intricate human biology is, but your body is made up of trillions of cells. In order to function properly, these cells are constantly growing and dividing to form new cells, the NCI explains. In the normal cellular cycle, cells that become old or damaged die off and get replaced by newer, healthier versions.
Cancer forces this usual process to go terribly wrong. If someone has cancer, their old and damaged cells don’t die off, and new cells form without reason. These cells can start to divide uncontrollably and, as a result, form tumors, the NCI says.
Cancer is more likely to be fatal when it’s metastatic, meaning it has spread throughout the body.
You might have heard of metastatic cancer but not known exactly what it means.
Metastatic cancer happens when cancerous cells disperse into surrounding tissues or even travel to other parts of the body through the blood or lymph systems, according to the NCI. These cells can then form tumors in their new locations.
Even though metastatic cancer has by definition moved from its point of origin, it’s still considered a form of that primary cancer, the NCI explains. So, if you had ovarian cancer that spread to your stomach, it would be considered metastatic ovarian cancer, not stomach cancer.
It’s often this spread—and its impact on one or several major organs—that ultimately kills someone, Jack Jacoub, M.D., medical oncologist and medical director of MemorialCare Cancer Institute at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California, tells SELF. For this reason, cancer staging is largely dependent on how extensively the cancer has traveled. Stage IV cancer, the most severe form, means the cancer has wound up in distant body parts.
But metastatic cancer doesn’t kill people in any one specific way. Instead, this disease can take a few avenues to end someone’s life.
|Read on: How Does Cancer Kill You?|