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Cancer starts from the uncontrolled division of cells in the body. As the abnormal cells continue to grow, they form a tumor. As a tumor grows it can metastasize, or spread, and begin forming new tumors in different parts of the body. Not all cancers behave the same way; different types of cancer have different growth rates and respond differently to anti-cancer treatments. In medical terms, cancer is often referred to as a malignant neoplasm.

Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States. One in three women and one in two men will be diagnosed with cancer at some point during their life. The American Cancer Society estimates that there will be 7,120 new cases of cancer in Hawai'i in 2019 and 2,560 cancer deaths. Prevention, screening, and treatment options are available for most types of cancer and their use and advancements in each have decreased death rates due to cancer.

Cancer generally develops over several years and has many causes. Several factors, both inside and outside the body, contribute to the development of cancer. Some of these factors include genetics, tobacco use, diet, weight, physical inactivity, and excessive sunlight exposure. Other factors include exposure to chemicals that may be present in food, air, or water such as asbestos, benzene, and arsenic.

No one is immune from getting cancer. Although scientific studies have identified specific factors which increase the risk for cancer, sometimes people without any risk factors still develop cancer and people with many risk factors do not develop cancer. The following list contains common cancer risk factors.
  • Older age: the risk of developing cancer increases with age
  • Race and ethnicity: people of certain races and ethnic backgrounds are at higher risk of certain types of cancer
  • Tobacco use
  • Environmental exposure to cancer-causing agents (carcinogens)
  • Genetics and family history
  • Medical conditions/diseases including a weak immune system, diabetes, Crohn's Disease, or human papillomavirus (HPV) infection

There are many ways to reduce your risk for cancer. Following these guidelines can reduce your risk for cancer and improve your general health.
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Exercise regularly
  • Do not smoke or use tobacco products; if you already use tobacco, look for ways to quit
  • Abstain from alcohol or drink only in moderation
  • Receive proper immunizations: certain infectious diseases like human papillomavirus (HPV) and Hepatitis B and C can lead to cancer later in life
  • Protect your skin from the sun: wear proper sun-protection clothing and use plenty of sunscreen when you are outside
  • Limit your exposure to environmental risk factors such as asbestos, radon, arsenic and benzene
  • Get regular medical check-ups including cancer screening tests like mammograms, Pap tests, and colonoscopies. Early detection of cancer significantly improves the chances of a complete recovery

Cancer data come from several sources:
  • Screening: The Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) monitors the use of cancer screening to promote early detection including: mammography to detect breast cancer, Pap tests for cervical cancer and fecal occult blood testing (FOBT), sigmoidoscopy and colonoscopy for colon cancer.
  • Incidence, stage at diagnosis, and survivorship: State cancer registries, including the Hawai'i Tumor Registry, collect detailed information about cancer patients and the treatments they receive, which makes the monitoring of trends in incidence and mortality as well as the evaluation of prevention and control measures possible.
  • Mortality: Death certificates are a fundamental source of demographic, geographic, and cause-of-death information. They make it possible to track every death in the nation due to cancer. Deaths are reported as being due to cancer when the cancer was the underlying cause of death.