The human body is made up of cells. Cells are the basic unit of life. For instance, cells come together to form a tissue. A group of different tissues come together to form an organ and different organs come together to form a particular system in the body.
An example of a cell is the red blood cell that transports oxygen. An example of a tissue is the cardiac muscle that supports the heart. An organ such as the heart is made up of different tissues which pump blood and oxygen throughout the body. All these come together to form the circulatory system responsible for transporting oxygen and other substances in the body. Thus, it all begins from the cell.
Cells do not stay in the body forever; they grow and divide. They either become damaged or die. When this happens, new cells have to take their place. Under normal circumstances, new cells will replace old cells without a hitch. Other times, this does not happen. Cells that are to replace old or damaged cells may divide uncontrollably. They form a mass of cells termed tumours.
One may ask, why? Why do some cells go through the normal processes and others form tumours? The answer is GENETIC MUTATION.
Mutation simply means change whilst genetic has to do with genes (DNA) present in our body. Thus, genetic mutation has to do with some alterations in our DNA sequence. Let’s break this down.
All cells contain a cell membrane, a nucleus and a cytoplasm. The nucleus is the portion that contains the genes or DNA. DNA is made up of subunits called genes. There are different genes in our DNA. Genes are like the seeds of a fruit. Just like a mango seed will produce a mango fruit, genes control what we see on the outside such as the skin, skin colour, eye colour and even processes that take place within the body.
Genes produce proteins to replace old cells when they become damaged. Genes tell your body to produce hormones such as insulin when you are hungry. Insulin converts the stored glucose back to your bloodstream so that you will be energetic and not collapse.
When the seed that is supposed to produce a mango changes or mutates, then we are certain that, mango will not be produced but something abnormal.
This is what happens when there is a genetic mutation in the gene that controls which cells should divide and which cells should get replaced. For example, there are genes responsible for normal cell growth. When a mutation occurs in this gene, cells will divide uncontrollably and form a tumour.
Some genes serve as checkpoints even when there is abnormal growth. Genes that serve as checkpoints mostly prevent the tumour from growing.
It is estimated that every person will experience mutation in some genes during his or her lifetime. Some mutations will not cause harm whilst others will. The immune system will fight them when they arise but sometimes, they miss them.
Nevertheless, if there is a change in this checkpoint gene, then the tumour may continue to grow. Before we delve into the things that causes this mutation, let’s begin by looking at the types of tumours that can occur.
As mentioned, a tumour occurs when cells divide uncontrollably and form a lump that resembles a swelling. Tumours can be benign or cancerous.
A benign tumour means the tumour can grow but will not spread to other parts of the body. A benign tumour does not usually threaten life unless it interferes with vital structures, tissues or organs. For example, a benign tumour may not be dangerous if it is located on the hand. But if it occurs in the brain, then it becomes fatal because the brain controls the body and is the body’s engine. Benign tumours are curable because they can be removed through surgeries or the use of drugs.
Examples of benign tumours include;
Fibroids: fibrous tissues connect organs. They are mostly found in the uterus(womb) and are called uterine fibroids.
Lipomas: they grow in fat cells and are usually found at the back, hand or arm.
Nevi: they are found on the skin and popularly known as moles.
Adenomas: they form in thin membranes that cover glands, organs and structures. It is estimated that 9 out of 10 lumps found in the breast are benign. However, only a doctor can confirm this after an examination.
Malignant tumour, reflecting the Latin origin of the term malignans, aspiring to be wicked or to act maliciously. A malignant tumour can spread from its original location to other parts of the body. It is at this stage that we can call tumour cancer. Hence, only malignant tumours are called cancers. They can invade other tissues and, if left untreated, usually results in death.
Examples of malignant tumours or cancers include:
The most important thing to note is that benign tumours will not spread to other parts of the body. This makes it easier to cure, unlike malignant tumours which are referred to as cancers.
Tumours are caused by genetic mutations in some genes. This genetic mutation is due to:
1. Inheritance of some defective genes from parents. For example, a person is more likely to get breast cancer if her mother had one. This is because she may have transferred that gene to her offspring. Nevertheless, it does not mean that such an individual will automatically get breast cancer. The inherited gene work along with mutations acquired from the environment to cause cancer. Cancers that occur through this channel are few.
2. Mutations may be acquired from the environment through poor lifestyles such as:
· Smoking and tobacco
· Some types of radiation
· Diet and lack of physical activity
· Viruses and other infections
Most tumours are acquired and it takes a decent and healthy lifestyle to prevent them.
In summary, some cells may experience mutation. When this happens, there are some checkpoint genes to reverse the process. However, if these genes also become mutated, then the tumour will grow. Fortunately, the immune system will act and kill all these cells but sometimes they miss. The best way to reduce the risk of tumours and cancers is to have a good lifestyle.
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