Basic facts about cancer

General information related to cancer.

What is cancer?

Cancer is a group of many diseases. There are many different types of cancer. Cancer occurs when the human body's production of new cells is too active. Normal adult cells divide only to replace or repair damaged cells. Cancer cells are different because they cannot stop dividing and they spread out of control. Each cancer is named after the part of the body where it starts (for example, breast cancer).

Who gets cancer?

No one can predict who will get cancer and who will not. Some cancers run in families. These cancers are called genetic or inherited. Cancer can also be caused by other factors such as the environment (e.g., indoor air quality, such as radon levels, and outdoor air pollution), your lifestyle, and your community conditions (or factors where you live, work, and play) known as the social determinants of health. In some cancers, chemicals in a workplace setting or in the environment may also play a role. Some ways to lower your risk of developing certain cancers include avoiding tobacco, avoiding or drinking less alcohol, and eating a healthy.  

To learn more about risk factors for cancer, click here.   

How can I reduce my chances of getting cancer?

You can lower your chances of getting some cancers by: 

  • Avoiding tobacco and secondhand smoke. To learn more about ways to quit tobacco and access quitting resources, you can visit the MA Quitline online or by calling 1-800-QUIT-NOW.  

  • Protecting your skin from the sun by wearing a hat, long-sleeves, long pants, sunglasses and sunscreen 

  • Eating a healthy diet and getting regular exercise. Mass in Motion promotes 6 behaviors you can do to eat well and move more here.  

  • Limiting alcohol use 

  • Getting vaccinated for human papillomavirus (HPV) and hepatitis B. To learn more about the HPV vaccination and why it is important, click here.   

  • Getting tested for hepatitis C 

  • Testing your home for radon. To learn more about radon and how to test your home, click here.  

Are there tests to see if I have cancer?

For some types of cancer, there are screening tests  that can help find cancer early when it is most treatable. Screening means checking your body for cancer before you have symptoms. Talk to your doctor about which screening tests are right for you. Screening tests include: 

  • Mammogram for breast cancer 

  • Pap test, HPV test, or combination of both for cervical cancer 

  • at-home stool-based tests and colonoscopy for colorectal cancer 

  • Prostate specific antigen (PSA) test for prostate cancer, following a discussion between the patient and  their doctor about the benefits and potential harms of screening (shared decision making)  

  • Low dose CT scan for lung cancer (only for people who have a history of heavy smoking, and smoke now or have quit within the past 15 years and don’t have any symptoms of lung cancer) 

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