cancer, in medicine, common term for neoplasms, or tumors, that are malignant. Like benign tumors, malignant tumors do not respond to body mechanisms that limit cell growth. Unlike benign tumors, malignant tumors consist of undifferentiated, or unspecialized, cells that show an atypical cell structure and do not function like the normal cells from the organ from which they derive. Cancer cells, unlike normal cells, lack contact inhibition; cancer cells growing in laboratory tissue culture do not stop growing when they touch each other on a glass or other solid surface but grow in masses several layers deep.
Loss of contact inhibition accounts for two other characteristics of cancer cells: invasiveness of surrounding tissues, and metastasis, or spreading via the lymph system or blood to other tissues and organs. Whereas normal cells have a limited lifespan controlled by the telomere gene, which signals the end of the cell line, cancer cells contain telomerase, an enzyme that alters the telomere gene and allows the cell to continue to divide. Cancer tissue, growing without limits, competes with normal tissue for nutrients, eventually killing normal cells by nutritional deprivation. Cancerous tissue can also cause secondary effects, in which the expanding malignant growth puts pressure on surrounding tissue or organs or the cancer cells metastasize and invade other organs.