Cancer, unfortunately, has been with us since the dawn of human history. The disease gets its name from the Ancient Greek word karkinos, meaning crab, because the veins of tumors looked like the legs of a crab to the old Greeks. Tumors, of course, are caused by rapid and uncontrolled cell division, which can spread to other parts of the body. This spreading, called metastasis, is why it's so vital to spot cancer early on and get treatment as quickly as possible.
Although cancer treatment can still be an ordeal for the patient, we luckily live in a time where the disease is better understood and more successfully treated than at any point in history. In addition, new treatments for cancer are being thought up and developed all the time. Compare this to most of history, where the idea that bodily health depended on the balance of four bodily humors and the best treatment you might get was bloodletting! It wasn't until the discovery of cells that what tumors truly were began to be understood. For certain types of cancer, survival rates have increased dramatically in the past 25 years.
Today, the main options for treating cancer are chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Chemotherapy involves pumping special drugs into the body in an attempt to slow or stop the division of cancer cells. Unfortunately, chemotherapy often comes with severe side effects like exhaustion, muscle pains, shooting pains, headaches, and hair loss.
The drugs used in chemo are typically administered intravenously, and are specifically designed to target cells that divide rapidly. The reason why hair loss often occurs is because hair follicle cells divide rapidly, just like cancer cells, and so are attacked by these drugs. However, hair loss on the scalp can be inhibited by wearing a hypothermia cap, also known as a cold cap or cool cap.
Radiation therapy, on the other hand, uses ionizing radiation to attack and kill cancerous cells by damaging their DNA. Radiation therapy can also come with serious side effects such as fatigue, diarrhea, and dry mouth; for men - sexual problems and lowered sperm count, and for women - the cessation of menstrual cycles.
As said, potential new treatments are being investigated all of the time. One such modern treatment that makes the medical world excited is called molecularly targeted therapy. Whereas chemotherapy and radiation therapy could be compared to taking a sledgehammer and "hitting" the areas where cancerous cells are, molecularly targeted therapy is more like using a scalpel to specifically target just cancerous cells. The drugs used attack molecules that are specific to cancer cells. This type of treatment is still being developed, but it's something we can all look forward to.