Pre-cancerous—warning sign or cause for panic?

April 19, 2018 by Susan Woods, Hannah Brown And Tamsin Lannagan, The Conversation
Screening and monitoring can catch precancerous cells before they turn into cancer. Credit: www.shutterstock.com

It might be a spot, lump, bump or polyp you've found suspicious or bothersome enough to ask a doctor to have a look at. The doctor sends what she has excised for testing and tells you it's "pre-cancerous". But what exactly does that mean, and is it cause for alarm?

A reminder about how cancer occurs

Our bodies are made up of more than 200 types of building blocks, or cells, which form your organs (heart, brain, skin and so forth). Over time, these cells replace each other to keep our organs healthy and functioning normally.

Ordinarily, this cell regeneration (and the controlled cell death) is exquisitely controlled. But occasionally errors are made, particularly in the gate-keeping processes that control how quickly and efficiently the cells regenerate. The process then begins to get out of control.

The older we get, and the more times our cells regenerate and replace themselves, the more chances there are for mistakes. This is why we call a disease of age – one that is more likely as you grow older.

How is pre-cancer different from cancer?

Pre-cancers are which have undergone some changes that we know are associated with an increased risk of becoming cancerous, but are not yet cancer. These changes include alterations to the inherited material (DNA) of the cells and the way those cells talk to their neighbouring cells and the immune system.

As these changes occur, the cells develop the ability to ignore normal cues that would ordinarily signal them to die (or stop replicating). This leads to an increase in the number of pre-cancer cells that may be detectable – for example, a mole on your skin made up of melanocytes (pigmented cells) or a small polyp in your colon that shows up during a colonoscopy.

Additional or more powerful changes occur to switch these pre-cancers to cancer, and the chance of this happening is different for each cancer. Cancer occurs when become completely deaf to normal signals that constrain growth and regeneration, allowing them to start moving away from their proper location, upsetting their resident tissue and other organs around the body.

A mole may be made up of pre-cancerous cells. Credit: www.shutterstock.com

Not all pre-cancers are equal

Pre-cancers can take a long time to develop into cancer, many in fact will not progress but some can progress remarkably fast. It's this risk of cancer that clinicians and scientists are trying to prevent.

Doctors currently use a combination of the size, number, location and appearance of precancers together with molecular changes and patient history (for example exposure to known such as long-term sun exposure, or a genetic susceptibility such as family history of bowel cancer) to predict the overall likelihood of cancer developing.

This risk assessment determines whether a pre-cancer needs to be removed and the screening interval for follow-up with the patient. This evaluation is based on the best available data and medical researchers are working hard every day to understand more about what contributes to this risk to identify better, absolute markers for pre-cancers that will progress to cancer.

So if your spot, lump or bump wasn't cancer, you have found it early and this is good news. Having a pre-cancerous condition doesn't mean you have cancer, or that you will definitely develop cancer. But pre-cancerous conditions might develop into a cancer, so it's important to monitor your health.

Early detecting

In Australia, cancer screening has been implemented for many decades. We have a number of screening options for (regular skin checks by GPs and specialists), breast cancer (mammograms, available free for women 50-74), (screening test, available free for women 25-74) and bowel cancer (also known as ), performed through the National Bowel Cancer Screening program (available free to every Australian aged 50-74) through a faeces test.

The same precautions that reduce your chances of cancer are likely to reduce the earliest changes associated with pre-cancer.

In addition to regular screening, quit smoking, protect yourself from excess sun, eat a balanced diet with plenty of fibre and exercise regularly. And as always, if you have any concerns or would like more information, talk to your doctor.

Explore further: Five ways research can prevent cancer

Related Stories

Five ways research can prevent cancer

April 9, 2018
We recently published landmark research showing how lifestyle can influence our risk of cancer, and what factors could help prevent it. We found that around 4 in 10 cancer cases could be prevented by things like not smoking, ...

Family history of colon cancer calls for earlier screening

March 21, 2017
(HealthDay)—If you've got a family history of colon or rectal cancers, you probably need to start screening for these conditions before you turn 50, a cancer expert says.

Five things everyone should know about breast cancer

October 4, 2017
In 2017, the American Cancer Society estimates more than 250,000 new cases of breast cancer will be diagnosed in the United States, with more than 40,000 deaths. But progress in treatment and early detection has led to improved ...

New research reveals cancers need a 'perfect storm' of conditions to develop

August 25, 2016
Scientists have demonstrated for the first time the 'perfect storm' of conditions that cells need to start forming cancer, helping to explain why some organs are more susceptible to developing the disease, according to a ...

Breast cancer awareness: What women need to know

September 28, 2016
As national Breast Cancer Awareness Months begins next week, breast health expert Dr. Sharon Koehler of New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine, says women need to know the following five things:

6 things you need to know about cervical screening

June 13, 2017
It's Cervical Screening Awareness Week, so we're giving a run-down of what you need to know about cervical screening, also known as the smear test.

Recommended for you

Downward-facing mouse: Stretching reduces tumor growth in mouse model of breast cancer

May 22, 2018
Many cancer patients seek out gentle, movement-based stretching techniques such as yoga, tai chi and qigong, but does stretching have an effect on cancer? While many animal studies have attempted to quantify the effects of ...

Resetting the epigenetic balance for cancer therapy

May 22, 2018
Though mutations in a gene called MLL3 are common across many types of cancers, their relationship to the development of the disease has been unclear. Now, a Northwestern Medicine study has identified an epigenetic imbalance ...

Compound in citrus oil could reduce dry mouth in head, neck cancer patients

May 21, 2018
A compound found in citrus oils could help alleviate dry mouth caused by radiation therapy in head and neck cancer patients, according to a new study by researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

Ice cream funds research showing new strategy against thyroid cancer

May 21, 2018
Anaplastic thyroid cancer is almost uniformly fatal, with an average lifespan of about 5 months after diagnosis. And standard treatment for the condition includes 7 weeks of radiation, often along with chemotherapy.

Bladder cancer model could pave the way for better drug efficacy studies

May 21, 2018
Understanding that not all bladder cancers are the same, researchers at the University of North Carolina Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center have created a tool that may help them to uncover why only a fraction of patients ...

Breath test breakthrough for early diagnosis of oesophageal and gastric cancer

May 18, 2018
A breath test can successfully detect oesophageal and gastric cancer and could be used as a first-line test for patients, say researchers.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.