What do cancer cells look like?

 What do cancer cells look like? How are they identified?

Let’s get a little background on cells before we start this post.

Cells defined are the basic unit and structure of life.  All living things are composed of cells and all cells come from other cells.

Similar to energy in that it can not come from nowhere, the Cell Theory states that cell must come from other cells.

At the microscopic level, cells vary in size and depending on what type of cells are being observed and what type of organism the cells come from.

Plants tend to have very rectangular and square shaped cells housed with a cell wall that helps keep them from being flaccid and allows them to support their shapes, whereas human (animal) cells are round in shape and do not have a cell wall.  We have specialized structural cells to help us keep our shaped called muscle and bone cells.

Cells working together collaboratively for the same function are called tissues.    Lung tissue is made of thousands of lung cells, heart tissue (cardiac tissue) is made of thousands of cardiac cells (which are unique in that each individual cell carries it’s own rhythm from the moment it comes into existence!) and so on.

Different tissues and organs will look varied and different under a microscope because they are all from different type of cells and those cells are arranged differently depending on the type of tissue they form.

Cancer changes things. Cancerous cells are are shaped differently and therefore also affect the shape of the tissue or organ that they affect.

Tissues (and their cells) are examined by pahtologists which are doctors who specialize in identifying  diseases such as cancer.  Generally this identification takes place in a lab and with a microscope.   There are specialists in all sorts of areas of medicine to help diagnose and identify cancerous cells.  For example, a doctor who specializes in blood is called a hematologists and doctor who specializes in skin is called a dermatologists. Both doctors would be able to identify abnormalities in their field of study respectively.

Here are some ways that doctors will look at your cells to determine if you have cancer:

  1. Cell Size and Shape – Each type of cell has it’s own specific shape and organelles (tiny organs within the cell) that affect the cell size and shape.  Cancerous cells tend to make the shape and size of the cell it attacks abnormal in comparison to another cell of the same type. Cancerous cells may cause cells to crenate or bloat out (be smaller or larger in a sense) and they may often change theirshape from spherical to oblong, sickled or other shapes.  Cancer cells vary in shape in size even to one another and not consistent which is very different from a normal healthy cell.
  2. Nuclear Formation – The nucleus is the “brain” of the cell and houses the DNA which is the information of how to build your entire body.  The size and shape of the nucleus in cancer cells is very frequently abnormal and malfunctioning and the DNA is generally mutated or damaged.  The nucleus of a cancer cell is often larger and much darker than a normal cell nucleus.  Cancerous cells and the nuclei are more distinguishable under a microscope because they tend to stain differently than healthy cells.  The reason for this is that they often have excessive DNA strands in their nuclear membrane which makes the nucleus more dense and therefore more dark than a normal cell.
  3. Cell Arrangement – Normal cells are arranged in specific ways depending on the type of cell they are and the type of tissues they create.  For example, glands area arranged in the best order to make the transport of substance throughout the body the most efficient.  Breasts have gland tissue that produce milk and are organized on lobes where mile is made and then also of ducts that carry the milk outside the body to the nipple. The Pancreas and the stomach rely on glandular cells to make digestive enzymes and protective mucus for the stomach.  As cancer develops and invades these specially arranged cells (in the lungs, stomach, breast, brain etc), the cell do not form glands that are normal or they do not form glads at all.  They may form peculiar cell clumps but they are not functioning glands.
  4. Cancer moves – Cancer cells tend to move around the body and invade other tissues whereas normal body cells stay within the tissue or organ’s that they create.  This is how cancer can spread and explains how cancer can infect several parts of the body at once.   Lymph cancer is one of the more dangerous of cancers because the lymph node system in the body already has an accessible transport system through out the body.  Cancer in the lymph nodes is like cancer with a Ferrari compared to cancers in other parts of the body.   If doctors find peculiar lung cells in the blood drawn from the toe or breast cells in the stomach area, they can suspect that cancer may be a culprit because normal cells do not move throughout the body.



Doctors identify the type of cancer based on what it looks like under the microscope.   Generally cancer is named after the cells and tissues that they infect or after the cells and tissues they most represent.  Cancers cells the look as though they may be part of the lymph system are called lymphomas, cells that look like bone cells are called osteosarcomas and so on.
Cancers are “graded” bases on how close they actually resemble the normal cells or tissues that they represent.  If the cancer cell very closely resembles the normal cells with a few minor abnormalities the cancer is considered to be low grade and those that are drastically different from the cell are called high – grade.  High grade cancers are like wild children, out of control and hard to stabilize, they grow faster and spread faster than a low grade cancer.   Patients who are diagnosed with low grade cancers are more susceptible to surviving than those who are diagnosed with high grade cancer.

So there you go.
That’s your cancer lesson for the day.  I truly hope you never need this information to understand something about your own or a loved ones body…but if you do. I hope it is helpful.
I found this video to help you out too: