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African-American Patient Guide
Educational Module

What is cancer?

(1 of 12 sections)
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Our body is made up of cells. Each cell is given instructions on how to grow and divide. These instructions are given in the form of genes in DNA.

Every time a cell divides, it passes on its DNA to the new cells. When the DNA is copied, mistakes called mutations are sometimes made.

Usually, instructions in a cell’s DNA will tell it when to stop growing and dividing. But if a cell has mutations in the parts of the DNA that give instruction on when to stop growing, the cell may continue to grow. This is how cancer starts to form.


Cancer can happen anywhere in the body, even in the blood. A cell that divides out of control can make a clump of cells called a tumor. If a tumor grows in one place in the body, it is sometimes a benign tumor. Benign tumors often don’t need to be treated and can sometimes be left alone.

Tumors that spread quickly to other parts of the body are usually malignant tumors (“cancer”). Malignant tumors are generally more harmful than benign tumors because they can spread throughout the body and can affect your health in many ways.

Written by: Jasmine Mitchell, University of California Santa Barbara

Edited by: Dale O’Brien, MD, Cancer Patients Alliance

Formatting and content by: Raewyn O’Haire, AB, Cancer Patients Alliance

Consultant: Neil Atam, University of California Santa Barbara

Top Reference

Pancreatic resection: a key component to reducing racial disparities in pancreatic adenocarcinoma
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Click Here for the ACS Journal article