4 Types of Rare Cancer and What You Need to Know About Them

By: Divya Kilikar

Published On: July 25, 2018

Did you know that there is a type of cancer that can be found in your foot? Here are rare types of cancer you didn't know about...

Thanks to hundreds of social media campaigns, blogs, events and more, some types of cancer are very well known. Today, we can recognize many types of cancer just by the color of their ribbons alone. Ovarian cancer, lung cancer and prostate are some that the public has been familiar with for decades. Cervical cancer, made a late entry to the social media space but is now commonly known as well, after the #smearforsmear social media trend. More women and men get tested regularly than ever before today.

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But is it enough? Globally, cancer is still on the rise. There are more Indian children with brain tumor today than ever before.

According to this study conducted on 9 million U.S adults, out of 71 types of cancer that affect Americans, as many as 60 are rare. None of these have been trending on any social media hashtag, and most of us haven’t even heard of them. According to Radboud Institute for Molecular Life Sciences, globally, rare cancers account for around 22% of all cancers diagnosed worldwide.

What Does Rare Cancer Mean?

Cancer Research UK identifies 200 different types of cancer, out of which some are commonly known, like leukemia and breast cancer while others (186, to be exact) are all rare types that most of us aren’t familiar with.

Some healthcare experts believe that cancers that occur in unusual parts of the body that aren’t commonly affected, like the foot, are identified as rare cancers. Others believe that cancers that occur in a very small population, ie, less than 2-6 in every 100,000 are rare.

How Many Get Affected?

Take a look at this global cancer map and you’ll see that developed countries have higher cancer rates than developing ones. Denmark is known as the cancer capital of the world. As many as 1 in 5 Europeans are diagnosed with a rare cancer. Though many of these countries are actively making efforts to address the problem, most rare cancers are incurable and patients take medication as long as they live to cope with their conditions.

A major hurdle that the global healthcare industry needs to deal with when it comes to rare cancers is late and/or incorrect diagnosis. This is essentially because of the low probability of the occurrence of these cancers. Even after diagnosis, patients face other challenges posed by the rarity of these cancers:

  • Lack of access to clinical expertise in many geographical areas

  • Limited number of trials conducted due to the small number of affected individuals

  • Lack of interest in research and development of therapies

4 Types of Rare Cancer You’ve Probably Never Heard About

Head and Neck Cancer

This cancer usually originates in the oral cavity, the larynx, salivary glands, nasal cavity or many other parts of the head or neck. Tumors in the larynx can show as a lump in the throat, which may or may not cause pain. Cancer in the mouth will reveal itself as a swelled jaw or mouth sores. The cancer cells generally grow in the squamous cells that line the surfaces of the mouth, throat and nose.

Symptoms to look out for

  • Breathing difficulty

  • Change in voice (like hoarseness)

  • Unexplained weight loss

  • Red and/or white patches inside the mouth

  • Hearing difficulty

  • Frequent coughing

  • Bad breath despite appropriate hygiene habits

  • Factors that may put you at risk

Excessive consumption of alcohol, smoking and chewing of tobacco and a lack of good diet and exercise regime put anyone at high risk of developing nearly any type of cancer. However, men are twice as likely to develop head and neck cancer as women.

Often, some kinds of illnesses lead to head and neck cancer. For example, Epstein-Barr virus, Human Papillomarvirus (HPV), and some genetic syndromes are known to occasionally develop into head and neck cancer. Exposure to the sun and high doses of radiation therapy can also put one at risk.

What to do: Get yourself examined by a doctor immediately. They will look for telltale lumps in your neck, lips, gums and cheeks, followed by a blood/urine test.

Foot CancerCancer of the foot is so uncommon that it almost always goes unnoticed. It usually occurs on the top layer of the skin, on a type of skin cells called melanocyte, which protects the skin from the harmful effects of UV light. It can occur on any part of the foot; on the sole, or even under a nail. Though treatable in its early stages, it can be life-threatening if allowed to develop unnoticed. You can also develop bone, vascular or nerve cancer, though far less common.

Foot melanoma is only one of the many kinds of skin cancer you can develop (yes, even on your feet), but it is definitely the most common and lethal. Read about other skin cancers you can develop on your feet here.

Symptoms to look out for

  • Moles

  • Strange sensations

  • Dullness

  • CUBED: Anything that’s Colored, Uncertain, Bleeding, Enlarged could be a sign. A Delay in the healing of lesions on your feet can also be a red flag.

Factors that may put you at risk

Ultraviolet light is the most common risk factor, whether it’s from the sun or an artificial source, like a tanning bed. These rays can damage skin cells. However, it’s unclear how UV light plays a role in cases of cancer in non-exposed areas like the sole or under the toenail. Pale skin, freckles, genetics and existing moles can also increase your risk of developing foot cancer.

What to do: Visit a dermatologist. They will check your moles, lesions and other marks and may conduct a skin biopsy if they suspect cancer.

Mesenchymal Chondrosarcoma


This is a cancer of the cartilage that is so rare that less than 1000 cases have been registered in the US since 1959! This type of cancer is known to be aggressive and spreads rapidly to organs and lymph nodes, making it nearly impossible to cure if left undetected. Mesenchymal chondrosarcoma can occur not only in the bone, but even in the fat and muscle.

Symptoms to look out for

  • Pain in the affected area

  • Unusual swelling in the affected area

  • If left to develop, tumour may grow large enough to affect other organs

  • A tumour in the spine may cause paralysis if left to grow

  • A tumour in the eye socket can cause visual impairment or protrusion of the eye

Factors that may put you at risk

Unfortunately, very little is known about what causes this cancer. However, experts guess that it is majorly genetic, as the cancer can arise from abnormal changes in the structure of the oncogenes or tumour suppressor genes. The cancer is known to affect young children more than adults.

What to do: A doctor may perform an open biopsy or a needle-guided biopsy to determine the size and type of the tumour.

Vaginal Cancer

There are two kinds of vaginal cancers. One is squamous cell carcinoma that develops on the thin cells lining the vagina. Though the cancer cells grow slowly, they can be extremely lethal as they can spread to the lungs, liver or even the bone. The second type is adenocarcinoma that can develop in the glandular cells, which release the vaginal mucus that cleans the vagina. These are more likely to occur in women who have hit menopause and can also spread to the lungs.

Symptoms to look out for

  • Bleeding or discharge that are not related to your regular period

  • Pain in the pelvic area

  • A lump in the vagina

  • Pain while urinating or while having sex

  • Unexplained constipation 

Factor that may put you at risk

Diethylstilbestrol or DES was a drug that was popularly used in the 1950s to prevent miscarriage. However, it was quickly observed that women whose mothers consumed this drug were more prone to developing vaginal cancers than those who didn’t. Other risk factors, if any, aren’t known yet.

What to do: Visit your doctor, who may perform a pap smear test, a biopsy or a pelvic exam to determine if you’ve developed the disease.

What Can You Do To Keep Cancer At Bay?

There’s more ill-researched misleading information on the internet about cancer than you’d believe. Staying informed is key! Any doctor will agree when we say that there’s no sureshot way to completely eliminate the risk of developing cancer. But maintaining a good lifestyle can do wonders to lower the risk by a large extent. Here are some habits you need to pick up:

Stay away from tobacco: Whether you’re smoking it or chewing it, tobacco is always the top risk factor when it comes to many types of cancers. Even if you’re a secondhand smoker, you may still be at risk.

Avoid excessive drinking (alcohol): Heavy drinkers are at risk of developing cancer in the liver, mouth, larynx, pharynx and oesophagus. Limit your alcohol consumption to a minimum.

Maintain a nutritious diet: It’s important to eat what you like and enjoy your meals, but it’s also important to balance your nutrients and get a good portion of every kind of nutrient! Make sure your diet contains some carbs and high on protein, vitamins, good fats, fiber and minerals.

Exercise regularly: A sedentary lifestyle is notorious for being the main cause behind most medical problems we face today. Incorporate at least 30 minutes of workout into 2 or 3 of your weekdays.

Get immunized: Many viral diseases lead to cancer. Get your immunizations regularly to keep these at bay.

Protect yourself from the sun: Harmful UV rays are the major cause behind most skin cancers. Wear a hat and slap on some sunscreen before heading to the beach!

And most importantly…

Get yourself tested regularly: Here’s a comprehensive guideline to keeping cancer at bay, including lists of tests for all ages and genders. Early diagnosis is key to recovery. This is especially important with cancer because prevention isn’t always possible.

We suggest you also read:

How Medical Fundraising In India Is Beating Cancer

Do I Have Cancer? And Other Commonly Googled Cancer Questions

If you have any comments or feedback related to this article, reach out to us at engage@impactguru.com


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