Cancer (medical term: malignant neoplasm) is a class of diseases in which a group of cells display uncontrolled growth (division beyond the normal limits), invasion (intrusion on and destruction of adjacent tissues), and sometimes metastasis (spread to other locations in the body via lymph or blood). These three malignant properties of cancers differentiate them from benign tumors, which are self-limited, and do not invade or metastasize. Most cancers form a tumor but some, like leukemia, do not. The branch of medicine concerned with the study, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of cancer is oncology.
Cancer may affect people at all ages, even fetuses, but the risk for most varieties increases with age. Cancer causes about 13% of all human deaths. According to the American Cancer Society, 7.6 million people died from cancer in the world during 2007. Cancers can affect all animals.
Nearly all cancers are caused by abnormalities in the genetic material of the transformed cells. These abnormalities may be due to the effects of carcinogens, such as tobacco smoke, radiation, chemicals, or infectious agents. Other cancer-promoting genetic abnormalities may be randomly acquired through errors in DNA replication, or are inherited, and thus present in all cells from birth. The heritability of cancers is usually affected by complex interactions between carcinogens and the host's genome. New aspects of the genetics of cancer pathogenesis, such as DNA methylation, and microRNAs are increasingly recognized as important.
Genetic abnormalities found in cancer typically affect two general classes of genes. Cancer-promoting oncogenes are typically activated in cancer cells, giving those cells new properties, such as hyperactive growth and division, protection against programmed cell death, loss of respect for normal tissue boundaries, and the ability to become established in diverse tissue environments. Tumor suppressor genes are then inactivated in cancer cells, resulting in the loss of normal functions in those cells, such as accurate DNA replication, control over the cell cycle, orientation and adhesion within tissues, and interaction with protective cells of the immune system.
Diagnosis usually requires the histologic examination of a tissue biopsy specimen by a pathologist, although the initial indication of malignancy can be symptoms or radiographic imaging abnormalities. Most cancers can be treated and some cured, depending on the specific type, location, and stage. Once diagnosed, cancer is usually treated with a combination of surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. As research develops, treatments are becoming more specific for different varieties of cancer. There has been significant progress in the development of targeted therapy drugs that act specifically on detectable molecular abnormalities in certain tumors, and which minimize damage to normal cells. The prognosis of cancer patients is most influenced by the type of cancer, as well as the stage, or extent of the disease. In addition, histologic grading and the presence of specific molecular markers can also be useful in establishing prognosis, as well as in determining individual treatments.
The following closely related terms may be used to designate abnormal growths:
- Tumor or tumour: originally, it meant any abnormal swelling, lump or mass. In current English, however, the word tumor has become synonymous with neoplasm, specifically solid neoplasm. Note that some neoplasms, such as leukemia, do not form tumors.
- Neoplasm: the scientific term to describe an abnormal proliferation of genetically altered cells. Neoplasms can be benign or malignant:
- Malignant neoplasm or malignant tumor: synonymous with cancer.
- Benign neoplasm or benign tumor: a tumor (solid neoplasm) that stops growing by itself, does not invade other tissues and does not form metastases.
- Invasive tumor is another synonym of cancer. The name refers to invasion of surrounding tissues.
- Pre-malignancy, pre-cancer or non-invasive tumor: A neoplasm that is not invasive but has the potential to progress to cancer (become invasive) if left untreated. These lesions are, in order of increasing potential for cancer, atypia, dysplasia and carcinoma in situ.
The following terms can be used to describe a cancer:
- Screening: a test done on healthy people to detect tumors before they become apparent. A mammogram is a screening test.
- Diagnosis: the confirmation of the cancerous nature of a lump. This usually requires a biopsy or removal of the tumor by surgery, followed by examination by a pathologist.
- Surgical excision: the removal of a tumor by a surgeon.
- Surgical margins: the evaluation by a pathologist of the edges of the tissue removed by the surgeon to determine if the tumor was removed completely ("negative margins") or if tumor was left behind ("positive margins").
- Grade: a number (usually on a scale of 3) established by a pathologist to describe the degree of resemblance of the tumor to the surrounding benign tissue.
- Stage: a number (usually on a scale of 4) established by the oncologist to describe the degree of invasion of the body by the tumor.
- Recurrence: new tumors that appear at the site of the original tumor after surgery.
- Metastasis: new tumors that appear far from the original tumor.
- Median survival time: a period of time, often measured in months or years, over which 50% of the cancer patients are expected to be alive. 
- Transformation: the concept that a low-grade tumor transforms to a high-grade tumor over time. Example: Richter's transformation.
- Chemotherapy: treatment with drugs.
- Radiation therapy: treatment with radiations.
- Adjuvant therapy: treatment, either chemotherapy or radiation therapy, given after surgery to kill the remaining cancer cells.
- Prognosis: the probability of cure after the therapy. It is usually expressed as a probability of survival five years after diagnosis. Alternatively, it can be expressed as the number of years when 50% of the patients are still alive. Both numbers are derived from statistics accumulated with hundreds of similar patients to give a Kaplan-Meier curve.
- Cure: A cancer patient is "cured" if 95% of treated patients live a certain period of time after the date of their diagnosis of cancer. For example in the case of Hodgkin's disease this period of time is 10 years, whereas for Burkitt's lymphoma this period would be 1 year.  The phrase "cure" used in oncology is based upon the statistical concept of a median survival time and disease-free median survival time. 
Cancers are classified by the type of cell that resembles the tumor and, therefore, the tissue presumed to be the origin of the tumor. These are the histology and the location, respectively. Examples of general categories include:
- Carcinoma: Malignant tumors derived from epithelial cells. This group represents the most common cancers, including the common forms of breast, prostate, lung and colon cancer.
- Sarcoma: Malignant tumors derived from connective tissue, or mesenchymal cells.
- Lymphoma and leukemia: Malignancies derived from hematopoietic (blood-forming) cells
- Germ cell tumor: Tumors derived from totipotent cells. In adults most often found in the testicle and ovary; in fetuses, babies, and young children most often found on the body midline, particularly at the tip of the tailbone; in horses most often found at the poll (base of the skull).
- Blastic tumor or blastoma: A tumor (usually malignant) which resembles an immature or embryonic tissue. Many of these tumors are most common in children.
Malignant tumors (cancers) are usually named using -carcinoma, -sarcoma or -blastoma as a suffix, with the Latin or Greek word for the organ of origin as the root. For instance, a cancer of the liver is called hepatocarcinoma; a cancer of the fat cells is called liposarcoma. For common cancers, the English organ name is used. For instance, the most common type of breast cancer is called ductal carcinoma of the breast or mammary ductal carcinoma. Here, the adjective ductal refers to the appearance of the cancer under the microscope, resembling normal breast ducts.
Benign tumors (which are not cancers) are named using -oma as a suffix with the organ name as the root. For instance, a benign tumor of the smooth muscle of the uterus is called leiomyoma (the common name of this frequent tumor is fibroid). Unfortunately, some cancers also use the -oma suffix, examples being melanoma and seminoma.
Signs and symptoms
Roughly, cancer symptoms can be divided into three groups:
- Local symptoms: unusual lumps or swelling (tumor), hemorrhage (bleeding), pain and/or ulceration. Compression of surrounding tissues may cause symptoms such as jaundice (yellowing the eyes and skin).
- Symptoms of metastasis (spreading): enlarged lymph nodes, cough and hemoptysis, hepatomegaly (enlarged liver), bone pain, fracture of affected bones and neurological symptoms. Although advanced cancer may cause pain, it is often not the first symptom.
- Systemic symptoms: weight loss, poor appetite, fatigue and cachexia (wasting), excessive sweating (night sweats), anemia and specific paraneoplastic phenomena, i.e. specific conditions that are due to an active cancer, such as thrombosis or hormonal changes.
Every symptom in the above list can be caused by a variety of conditions (a list of which is referred to as the differential diagnosis). Cancer may be a common or uncommon cause of each item.
Cancer is a diverse class of diseases which differ widely in their causes and biology. Any organism, even plants, can acquire cancer. Nearly all known cancers arise gradually, as errors build up in the cancer cell and its progeny (see mechanisms section for common types of errors).
Anything which replicates (our cells) will probabilistically suffer from errors (mutations). Unless error correction and prevention is properly carried out, the errors will survive, and might be passed along to daughter cells. Normally, the body safeguards against cancer via numerous methods, such as: apoptosis, helper molecules (some DNA polymerases), possibly senescence, etc. However these error-correction methods often fail in small ways, especially in environments that make errors more likely to arise and propagate. For example, such environments can include the presence of disruptive substances called carcinogens, or periodic injury (physical, heat, etc.), or environments that cells did not evolve to withstand, such as hypoxia (see subsections). Cancer is thus a progressive disease, and these progressive errors slowly accumulate until a cell begins to act contrary to its function in the animal.
The errors which cause cancer are often self-amplifying, eventually compounding at an exponential rate. For example:
- A mutation in the error-correcting machinery of a cell might cause that cell and its children to accumulate errors more rapidly
- A mutation in signaling (endocrine) machinery of the cell can send error-causing signals to nearby cells
- A mutation might cause cells to become neoplastic, causing them to migrate and disrupt more healthy cells
- A mutation may cause the cell to become immortal (see telomeres), causing them to disrupt healthy cells forever
Thus cancer often explodes in something akin to a chain reaction caused by a few errors, which compound into more severe errors. Errors which produce more errors are effectively the root cause of cancer, and also the reason that cancer is so hard to treat: even if there were 10,000,000,000 cancerous cells and one killed all but 10 of those cells, those cells (and other error-prone precancerous cells) could still self-replicate or send error-causing signals to other cells, starting the process over again. This rebellion-like scenario is an undesirable survival of the fittest, where the driving forces of evolution itself work against the body's design and enforcement of order. In fact, once cancer has begun to develop, this same force continues to drive the progression of cancer towards more invasive stages, and is called clonal evolution.
Research about cancer causes often falls into the following categories:
- Agents (e.g. viruses) and events (e.g. mutations) which cause or facilitate genetic changes in cells destined to become cancer.
- The precise nature of the genetic damage, and the genes which are affected by it.
- The consequences of those genetic changes on the biology of the cell, both in generating the defining properties of a cancer cell, and in facilitating additional genetic events which lead to further progression of the cancer.
Mutation: chemical carcinogens
Cancer pathogenesis is traceable back to DNA mutations that impact cell growth and metastasis. Substances that cause DNA mutations are known as mutagens, and mutagens that cause cancers are known as carcinogens. Particular substances have been linked to specific types of cancer. Tobacco smoking is associated with many forms of cancer, and causes 90% of lung cancer. Prolonged exposure to asbestos fibers is associated with mesothelioma.
Many mutagens are also carcinogens, but some carcinogens are not mutagens. Alcohol is an example of a chemical carcinogen that is not a mutagen. Such chemicals may promote cancers through stimulating the rate of cell division. Faster rates of replication leaves less time for repair enzymes to repair damaged DNA during DNA replication, increasing the likelihood of a mutation.
Decades of research has demonstrated the link between tobacco use and cancer in the lung, larynx, head, neck, stomach, bladder, kidney, oesophagus and pancreas. Tobacco smoke contains over fifty known carcinogens, including nitrosamines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Tobacco is responsible for about one in three of all cancer deaths in the developed world, and about one in five worldwide. Indeed, lung cancer death rates in the United States have mirrored smoking patterns, with increases in smoking followed by dramatic increases in lung cancer death rates and, more recently, decreases in smoking followed by decreases in lung cancer death rates in men. However, the numbers of smokers worldwide is still rising, leading to what some organizations have described as the tobacco epidemic.
Mutation: ionizing radiation
Sources of ionizing radiation, such as radon gas, can cause cancer. Prolonged exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun can lead to melanoma and other skin malignancies.
Non-ionizing radio frequency radiation from mobile phones and other similar RF sources has also been proposed as a cause of cancer, but there is currently little established evidence of such a link.
Viral or bacterial infection
Some cancers can be caused by infection with pathogens. Many cancers originate from a viral infection; this is especially true in animals such as birds, but also in humans, as viruses are responsible for 15% of human cancers worldwide. The main viruses associated with human cancers are human papillomavirus, hepatitis B and hepatitis C virus, Epstein-Barr virus, and human T-lymphotropic virus. Experimental and epidemiological data imply a causative role for viruses and they appear to be the second most important risk factor for cancer development in humans, exceeded only by tobacco usage. The mode of virally-induced tumors can be divided into two, acutely-transforming or slowly-transforming. In acutely transforming viruses, the virus carries an overactive oncogene called viral-oncogene (v-onc), and the infected cell is transformed as soon as v-onc is expressed. In contrast, in slowly-transforming viruses, the virus genome is inserts near a proto-oncogene in the host genome. The viral promoter or other transcription regulation elements then cause overexpression of that proto-oncogene. This induces uncontrolled cell division. Because the site of insertion is not specific to proto-oncogenes and the chance of insertion near any proto-oncogene is low, slowly-transforming viruses will cause tumors much longer after infection than the acutely-transforming viruses.
Hepatitis viruses, including hepatitis B and hepatitis C, can induce a chronic viral infection that leads to liver cancer in 0.47% of hepatitis B patients per year (especially in Asia, less so in North America), and in 1.4% of hepatitis C carriers per year. Liver cirrhosis, whether from chronic viral hepatitis infection or alcoholism, is associated with the development of liver cancer, and the combination of cirrhosis and viral hepatitis presents the highest risk of liver cancer development. Worldwide, liver cancer is one of the most common, and most deadly, cancers due to a huge burden of viral hepatitis transmission and disease.
Advances in cancer research have made a vaccine designed to prevent cancer available. In 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a human papilloma virus vaccine, called Gardasil. The vaccine protects against four HPV types, which together cause 70% of cervical cancers and 90% of genital warts. In March 2007, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) officially recommended that females aged 11–12 receive the vaccine, and indicated that females as young as age 9 and as old as age 26 are also candidates for immunization.
In addition to viruses, researchers have noted a connection between bacteria and certain cancers. The most prominent example is the link between chronic infection of the wall of the stomach with Helicobacter pylori and gastric cancer. Although only a minority of those infected with Helicobacter go on to develop cancer, since this pathogen is quite common it is probably responsible for the majority of these cancers.
Some hormones can act in a similar manner to non-mutagenic carcinogens in that they may stimulate excessive cell growth. A well-established example is the role of hyperestrogenic states in promoting endometrial cancer.
Immune system dysfunction
HIV is associated with a number of malignancies, including Kaposi's sarcoma, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and HPV-associated malignancies such as anal cancer and cervical cancer. AIDS-defining illnesses have long included these diagnoses. The increased incidence of malignancies in HIV patients points to the breakdown of immune surveillance as a possible etiology of cancer. Certain other immune deficiency states (e.g. common variable immunodeficiency and IgA deficiency) are also associated with increased risk of malignancy.
Most forms of cancer are sporadic, meaning that there is no inherited cause of the cancer. There are, however, a number of recognised syndromes where there is an inherited predisposition to cancer, often due to a defect in a gene that protects against tumor formation. Famous examples are:
- certain inherited mutations in the genes BRCA1 and BRCA2 are associated with an elevated risk of breast cancer and ovarian cancer
- tumors of various endocrine organs in multiple endocrine neoplasia (MEN types 1, 2a, 2b)
- Li-Fraumeni syndrome (various tumors such as osteosarcoma, breast cancer, soft tissue sarcoma, brain tumors) due to mutations of p53
- Turcot syndrome (brain tumors and colonic polyposis)
- Familial adenomatous polyposis an inherited mutation of the APC gene that leads to early onset of colon carcinoma.
- Hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC, also known as Lynch syndrome) can include familial cases of colon cancer, uterine cancer, gastric cancer, and ovarian cancer, without a preponderance of colon polyps.
- Retinoblastoma, when occurring in young children, is due to a hereditary mutation in the retinoblastoma gene.
- Down syndrome patients, who have an extra chromosome 21, are known to develop malignancies such as leukemia and testicular cancer, though the reasons for this difference are not well understood.
Excepting the rare transmissions that occur with pregnancies and only a marginal few organ donors, cancer is generally not a transmissible disease. The main reason for this is tissue graft rejection caused by MHC incompatibility. In humans and other vertebrates, the immune system uses MHC antigens to differentiate between "self" and "non-self" cells because these antigens are different from person to person. When non-self antigens are encountered, the immune system reacts against the appropriate cell. Such reactions may protect against tumour cell engraftment by eliminating implanted cells. In the United States, approximately 3,500 pregnant women have a malignancy annually, and transplacental transmission of acute leukaemia, lymphoma, melanoma and carcinoma from mother to fetus has been observed. The development of donor-derived tumors from organ transplants is exceedingly rare. The main cause of organ transplant associated tumors seems to be malignant melanoma, that was undetected at the time of organ harvest, though other cases exist. In fact, cancer from one organism will usually grow in another organism of that species, as long as they share the same histocompatibility genes, proven using mice; however this would never happen in a real-world setting except as described above.
In non-humans, a few types of cancer have been found to be caused by transmission of the tumor cells themselves. This phenomenon is seen in dogs with Sticker's sarcoma, also known as canine transmissible venereal tumor, as well as Devil facial tumour disease in Tasmanian devils.
Cancer is fundamentally a disease of regulation of tissue growth. In order for a normal cell to transform into a cancer cell, genes which regulate cell growth and differentiation must be altered. Genetic changes can occur at many levels, from gain or loss of entire chromosomes to a mutation affecting a single DNA nucleotide. There are two broad categories of genes which are affected by these changes. Oncogenes may be normal genes which are expressed at inappropriately high levels, or altered genes which have novel properties. In either case, expression of these genes promotes the malignant phenotype of cancer cells. Tumor suppressor genes are genes which inhibit cell division, survival, or other properties of cancer cells. Tumor suppressor genes are often disabled by cancer-promoting genetic changes. Typically, changes in many genes are required to transform a normal cell into a cancer cell.
There is a diverse classification scheme for the various genomic changes which may contribute to the generation of cancer cells. Most of these changes are mutations, or changes in the nucleotide sequence of genomic DNA. Aneuploidy, the presence of an abnormal number of chromosomes, is one genomic change which is not a mutation, and may involve either gain or loss of one or more chromosomes through errors in mitosis.
Large-scale mutations involve the deletion or gain of a portion of a chromosome. Genomic amplification occurs when a cell gains many copies (often 20 or more) of a small chromosomal locus, usually containing one or more oncogenes and adjacent genetic material. Translocation occurs when two separate chromosomal regions become abnormally fused, often at a characteristic location. A well-known example of this is the Philadelphia chromosome, or translocation of chromosomes 9 and 22, which occurs in chronic myelogenous leukemia, and results in production of the BCR-abl fusion protein, an oncogenic tyrosine kinase.
Small-scale mutations include point mutations, deletions, and insertions, which may occur in the promoter of a gene and affect its expression, or may occur in the gene's coding sequence and alter the function or stability of its protein product. Disruption of a single gene may also result from integration of genomic material from a DNA virus or retrovirus, and such an event may also result in the expression of viral oncogenes in the affected cell and its descendants.
Epigenetics is the study of the regulation of gene expression through chemical, non-mutational changes in DNA structure. The theory of epigenetics in cancer pathogenesis is that non-mutational changes to DNA can lead to alterations in gene expression. Normally, oncogenes are silent, for example, because of DNA methylation. Loss of that methylation can induce the aberrant expression of oncogenes, leading to cancer pathogenesis. Known mechanisms of epigenetic change include DNA methylation, and methylation or acetylation of histone proteins bound to chromosomal DNA at specific locations. Classes of medications, known as HDAC inhibitors and DNA methyltransferase inhibitors, can re-regulate the epigenetic signaling in the cancer cell.
Oncogenes promote cell growth through a variety of ways. Many can produce hormones, a "chemical messenger" between cells which encourage mitosis, the effect of which depends on the signal transduction of the receiving tissue or cells. In other words, when a hormone receptor on a recipient cell is stimulated, the signal is conducted from the surface of the cell to the cell nucleus to effect some change in gene transcription regulation at the nuclear level. Some oncogenes are part of the signal transduction system itself, or the signal receptors in cells and tissues themselves, thus controlling the sensitivity to such hormones. Oncogenes often produce mitogens, or are involved in transcription of DNA in protein synthesis, which creates the proteins and enzymes responsible for producing the products and biochemicals cells use and interact with.
Mutations in proto-oncogenes, which are the normally quiescent counterparts of oncogenes, can modify their expression and function, increasing the amount or activity of the product protein. When this happens, the proto-oncogenes become oncogenes, and this transition upsets the normal balance of cell cycle regulation in the cell, making uncontrolled growth possible. The chance of cancer cannot be reduced by removing proto-oncogenes from the genome, even if this were possible, as they are critical for growth, repair and homeostasis of the organism. It is only when they become mutated that the signals for growth become excessive.
One of the first oncogenes to be defined in cancer research is the ras oncogene. Mutations in the Ras family of proto-oncogenes (comprising H-Ras, N-Ras and K-Ras) are very common, being found in 20% to 30% of all human tumours. Ras was originally identified in the Harvey sarcoma virus genome, and researchers were surprised that not only was this gene present in the human genome but that, when ligated to a stimulating control element, could induce cancers in cell line cultures.
Tumor suppressor genes
Tumor suppressor genes code for anti-proliferation signals and proteins that suppress mitosis and cell growth. Generally, tumor suppressors are transcription factors that are activated by cellular stress or DNA damage. Often DNA damage will cause the presence of free-floating genetic material as well as other signs, and will trigger enzymes and pathways which lead to the activation of tumor suppressor genes. The functions of such genes is to arrest the progression of the cell cycle in order to carry out DNA repair, preventing mutations from being passed on to daughter cells. The p53 protein, one of the most important studied tumor suppressor genes, is a transcription factor activated by many cellular stressors including hypoxia and ultraviolet radiation damage.
Despite nearly half of all cancers possibly involving alterations in p53, its tumor suppressor function is poorly understood. p53 clearly has two functions: one a nuclear role as a transcription factor, and the other a cytoplasmic role in regulating the cell cycle, cell division, and apoptosis.
The Warburg hypothesis is the preferential use of glycolysis for energy to sustain cancer growth. p53 has been shown to regulate the shift from the respiratory to the glycolytic pathway.
However, a mutation can damage the tumor suppressor gene itself, or the signal pathway which activates it, "switching it off". The invariable consequence of this is that DNA repair is hindered or inhibited: DNA damage accumulates without repair, inevitably leading to cancer.
Mutations of tumor suppressor genes that occur in germline cells are passed along to offspring, and increase the likelihood for cancer diagnoses in subsequent generations. Members of these families have increased incidence and decreased latency of multiple tumors. The tumor types are typical for each type of tumor suppressor gene mutation, with some mutations causing particular cancers, and other mutations causing others. The mode of inheritance of mutant tumor suppressors is that an affected member inherits a defective copy from one parent, and a normal copy from the other. For instance, individuals who inherit one mutant p53 allele (and are therefore heterozygous for mutated p53) can develop melanomas and pancreatic cancer, known as Li-Fraumeni syndrome. Other inherited tumor suppressor gene syndromes include Rb mutations, linked to retinoblastoma, and APC gene mutations, linked to adenopolyposis colon cancer. Adenopolyposis colon cancer is associated with thousands of polyps in colon while young, leading to colon cancer at a relatively early age. Finally, inherited mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2 lead to early onset of breast cancer.
Development of cancer was proposed in 1971 to depend on at least two mutational events. In what became known as the Knudson two-hit hypothesis, an inherited, germ-line mutation in a tumor suppressor gene would only cause cancer if another mutation event occurred later in the organism's life, inactivating the other allele of that tumor suppressor gene.
Usually, oncogenes are dominant, as they contain gain-of-function mutations, while mutated tumor suppressors are recessive, as they contain loss-of-function mutations. Each cell has two copies of the same gene, one from each parent, and under most cases gain of function mutations in just one copy of a particular proto-oncogene is enough to make that gene a true oncogene. On the other hand, loss of function mutations need to happen in both copies of a tumor suppressor gene to render that gene completely non-functional. However, cases exist in which one mutated copy of a tumor suppressor gene can render the other, wild-type copy non-functional. This phenomenon is called the dominant negative effect and is observed in many p53 mutations.
Knudson’s two hit model has recently been challenged by several investigators. Inactivation of one allele of some tumor suppressor genes is sufficient to cause tumors. This phenomenon is called haploinsufficiency and has been demonstrated by a number of experimental approaches. Tumors caused by haploinsufficiency usually have a later age of onset when compared with those by a two hit process.
Cancer cell biology
Often, the multiple genetic changes which result in cancer may take many years to accumulate. During this time, the biological behavior of the pre-malignant cells slowly change from the properties of normal cells to cancer-like properties. Pre-malignant tissue can have a distinctive appearance under the microscope. Among the distinguishing traits are an increased number of dividing cells, variation in nuclear size and shape, variation in cell size and shape, loss of specialized cell features, and loss of normal tissue organization. Dysplasia is an abnormal type of excessive cell proliferation characterized by loss of normal tissue arrangement and cell structure in pre-malignant cells. These early neoplastic changes must be distinguished from hyperplasia, a reversible increase in cell division caused by an external stimulus, such as a hormonal imbalance or chronic irritation.
The most severe cases of dysplasia are referred to as "carcinoma in situ." In Latin, the term "in situ" means "in place", so carcinoma in situ refers to an uncontrolled growth of cells that remains in the original location and has not shown invasion into other tissues. Nevertheless, carcinoma in situ may develop into an invasive malignancy and is usually removed surgically, if possible.
Just like a population of animals undergoes evolution, an unchecked population of cells also can undergo evolution. This undesirable process is called somatic evolution, and is how cancer arises and becomes more malignant. 
Most changes in cellular metabolism that allow cells to grow in a disorderly fashion lead to cell death. However once cancer begins, cancer cells undergo a process of natural selection: the few cells with new genetic changes that enhance their survival or reproduction continue to multiply, and soon come to dominate the growing tumor, as cells with less favorable genetic change are out-competed. This is exactly how pathogens such as MRSA can become antibiotic-resistant (or how HIV can become drug-resistant), and the same reason why crop blights and pests can become pesticide-resistant. This evolution is why cancer recurrences will have cells which have acquired cancer-drug resistance (or in some cases, resistance to radiation from radiotherapy).
Biological properties of cancer cells
In a 2000 article by Hanahan and Weinberg, the biological properties of malignant tumor cells were summarized as follows:
- Acquisition of self-sufficiency in growth signals, leading to unchecked growth.
- Loss of sensitivity to anti-growth signals, also leading to unchecked growth.
- Loss of capacity for apoptosis, in order to allow growth despite genetic errors and external anti-growth signals.
- Loss of capacity for senescence, leading to limitless replicative potential (immortality)
- Acquisition of sustained angiogenesis, allowing the tumor to grow beyond the limitations of passive nutrient diffusion.
- Acquisition of ability to invade neighbouring tissues, the defining property of invasive carcinoma.
- Acquisition of ability to build metastases at distant sites, the classical property of malignant tumors (carcinomas or others).
The completion of these multiple steps would be a very rare event without :
- Loss of capacity to repair genetic errors, leading to an increased mutation rate (genomic instability), thus accelerating all the other changes.
These biological changes are classical in carcinomas; other malignant tumors may not need all to achieve them all. For example, tissue invasion and displacement to distant sites are normal properties of leukocytes; these steps are not needed in the development of leukemia. The different steps do not necessarily represent individual mutations. For example, inactivation of a single gene, coding for the p53 protein, will cause genomic instability, evasion of apoptosis and increased angiogenesis. Not all the cancer cells are dividing. Rather, a subset of the cells in a tumor, called cancer stem cells, replicate themselves and generate differentiated cells.