Frequently asked questions

Find answers to many of your questions
JDFaqsMore than one million people in the United States get cancer each year. Whether you have cancer or are close to someone who does, understanding the facts can help you cope. In this section you can find answers to frequently asked questions.

As a patient, what can the Providence Cancer Center do for me that I might not find elsewhere?

At the Providence Cancer Center our sole focus is cancer. For our patients, this specialization and focus translates to world-class medical expertise and patient care that goes beyond the norm. We approach care as an integrated team of experts so you won't have one provider working on your behalf, you'll have an entire team.

The Cancer Center is home to state-of-the-art technology delivering the most advanced  methods for diagnosis and treatment including cutting-edge new therapies. And, as Alaska’s only comprehensive cancer center, everything you need to take care of your cancer including diagnosis, treatment and all the support services, are available in one convenient location.

But aside from our team approach, state-of-the-art facility and treatment options, what really makes the Providence Cancer Center different is the people who work here. These people have dedicated their lives to helping treat people with cancer and they go above and beyond to do whatever it takes to help their patients. They get to know their patients, they care about them as if they were their friends and family. Because in a sense, that's what they become.

What is cancer?

Cancer is what happens when a group of cells grows uncontrollably and in an abnormal and disorderly way. It's really a result of what happens when, for reasons that are only partly understood, the normal growth-control mechanisms fail. Cancer cells have two properties that make them dangerous: They can invade into neighboring tissues, and they can spread to distant areas of the body, forming secondary tumors or metastases.

What causes cancer?

Two types of factors contribute to the cause of cancer. One is a tendency or predisposition to develop cancer; the other is exposure to the triggers that start it off (such as cigarettes, sun exposure, or liver damage, for example).

Why do some people get cancer and not others?

In a few cancers (such as retinoblastoma) and in a small proportion of the more common cancers (such as a small proportion of breast and ovarian cancers), there seems to be an inherited factor that we can (partly) identify. In most cancers, we assume that a person’s cells have a low threshold for becoming malignant, and thus he or she will develop a cancer with relatively less prompting by a trigger (such as cigarettes or the sun) than another person whose cells have a higher threshold and who may be able to tolerate more exposure to a trigger without developing a cancer.

Is there an epidemic of cancer?

Not really. An epidemic means a very rapid increase in the amount of the disease, and in most cancers there is no real change. In some cancers (such as stomach) there has been a decrease, and in some cancers (such as breast) there has been a small, steady increase, which may be partly accounted for by better diagnosis. There is an epidemic of discussion and awareness (thank goodness), so that at last people are talking about cancer, whereas until recently it had been a taboo subject.

Do we get cancer from what we eat?

Yes and no! The high-fat, low-fiber diet common in developed countries may play a role in about a third of all cancers (though we don’t know this for certain yet). There are, however, no toxins or chemicals in modern foods that cause cancer; in fact, the opposite is true. For example, the fact that cancer of the stomach is becoming less common may be because of the way we preserve foods and prevent bacterial decomposition of what we eat.

Are chemicals and pollutants causing cancer?

In a very small proportion of special cases only. In certain occupations, prolonged exposure to a few identified chemicals may cause certain (rare) kinds of cancers. Nowadays almost all of these substances have been identified and are regulated.

Does cigarette smoke really cause cancer?

Yes. Cigarettes cause the vast majority of cancers of the lung and are a major factor in cancers of the bladder, pancreas, mouth, larynx, esophagus, and kidney.

Can attitudes or stress cause cancer?

Not as far as we know. In fact, the idea that the cancer “personality” or a bad attitude contributes to the cause of cancer may be part of the ancient human habit of blaming the patient for the disease.

Can a change in diet alter the course of cancer?

Again, not as far as we know. Many cancer centers are currently involved in finding out whether a certain diet can alter the course of cancer in some selected early cases. There is no evidence that diet supplements, vitamins, minerals, or special diets actually change the course of a cancer once it has developed.

Why does the diagnosis seem to be so delayed in so many cases?

Cancer cells can multiply to produce literally billions of cells before a tumor becomes big enough to detect. That is why prevention and some methods of screening are so important.

Can cancer be prevented?

Many cancers can be prevented. The established preventive methods (including refraining from smoking, avoiding sun damage, sensible sexual behavior, eating a high-fiber, low-fat diet, having regular Pap tests) would reduce the incidence of cancer dramatically. We could probably prevent more if we knew more, so research is very active in this field.

Does treatment work?

Yes. Surgery, radiation therapy (after or instead of surgery) and chemotherapy are all forms of treatment that are used to treat cancer. These treatments can produce remissions in a proportion of cases when cure is not possible. Discussions you have with your doctor about your particular case are important, and why the doctors at the Cancer Center get to know all they can about your case. Then they create a treatment plan just for you.

Why is the treatment so challenging?

Treatment is so challenging mostly because cancer cells are only slightly different from normal cells. In this respect, cancers are totally different from, say, bacterial infections such as pneumonia or tuberculosis. Because bacteria are completely different from our body’s cells, antibiotics can kill them and not affect us very much. But because cancer cells are very like our normal cells, in order to kill them we (usually) risk doing considerable damage to normal cells or tissues.

I am going to start radiation next week. What should I expect, and what can I do to decrease the fatigue?

Fatigue related to radiation treatments usually starts about the second or third week of treatment, and may continue for up to three months or longer afterwards. It is important to take good care of yourself. This means eating a well-balanced diet, drinking lots of fluid, sleeping well at night, and doing exercise as tolerated, such as walking regularly. Once you start feeling fatigued, then you should match your activity level to how you feel. You should identify the activities or tasks that you have to do, and ask someone else to do the other. 

  • First, if you are driving yourself to your radiation treatments, see if someone else can drive you when you start feeling tired.
  • Second, try keeping a diary of how you feel, what makes you feel more energetic, what makes you feel more tired, and avoid the more tiring activities. Rate the activities using a simple scale, such as on a scale of 0(full of energy) to 10 (absolutely exhausted, no energy).
  • Third, talk with your doctor or nurse about problems that arise, or if your fatigue is severe.
  • Finally, access the support services at the Providence Cancer Center. There are many resources available to help you manage this difficult process. To improve and enhance your quality of life during cancer treatment and recovery, check into our Oncology Rehabilitation Program by calling 212-6872.