SummaryRead the full fact sheet
- Cancer is a disease of the cells in the body.
- Cancer can start anywhere in the body. Some common places for cancer to start include the skin, bowel, breasts, prostate and lungs.
- Many cancers can be treated by a doctor if they are found early.
- The risk of cancer can be reduced with a healthy lifestyle.
What is cancer?
is a disease of the cells. Cells are the basic building blocks of the human body. Our body is made up of lots of different types of cells like bone, skin and blood cells. The body constantly makes new cells to help us grow, replace old cells and heal injuries.
Sometimes this process goes wrong, and the cell becomes abnormal. The abnormal cell keeps dividing, making more abnormal cells.
The abnormal cells can gather together and form a lump called a tumour. There are 2 kinds of tumours:
- Benign tumours are not cancer. They do not spread to other parts of the body.
- Malignant tumours are cancer. They can spread to other parts of the body.
Where can cancer start?
As our body is made up of cells, cancer can start anywhere in the body. Some common places for cancer to start include:
The place where the cancer first starts is called primary cancer. Sometimes the doctors can’t find where the cancer first started. This is called cancer of unknown primary.
Can cancer spread?
Sometimes cancer cells move to other parts of the body. Cancer that has spread and developed into a tumour somewhere else in the body is called a secondary cancer or metastasis.
How do you get cancer?
Cancer can happen to anybody. Some things put people at a greater risk of getting cancer, including:
- getting older (half of all cancers are diagnosed in people aged 75 or over)
- some chemicals and
- some viruses, such as the human papillomavirus (spread by sexual contact).
How common is cancer?
Cancer is common. Many cancers can be treated by a doctor if they are found early.
How is cancer found (diagnosed)?
Sometimes, doctors find cancer because the person is feeling unwell and has symptoms. Cancer can also be found during routine screening to check your health.
Not everyone with symptoms has cancer. It is important to know what is normal for your body, and to see your doctor straight away if you notice changes like:
- lumps, sores or ulcers that don’t heal
- breast changes – lumpiness, a thickened area, unusual nipple discharge, a nipple that turns inwards, a change in shape or colour, or pain
- skin changes – moles that change shape, size or colour, or bleed
- a cough that won’t go away
- finding it hard to breathe or voice changes
- losing weight without trying
- nausea or vomiting that doesn’t go away
- or that doesn’t go away or you can’t explain
- for women, loss of , even if it’s a few spots between periods or after
- blood in your poo or wee
- unexplained pain in the body that does not get better.
What happens if you have cancer?
Cancer won’t go away without treatment. The treatment depends on the type and stage of the cancer (how much it has grown and spread). The most common cancer treatments are:
Your doctor will explain the options available to you. Each person is different; some people have more than one type of treatment.
If the cancer is found early, it may be easier to treat. If the cancer can’t be treated, your doctor may give you a treatment to make you feel better (by controlling your symptoms). With these types of treatment, you might feel less pain and have a better life.
Side effects of cancer treatments
All cancer treatments can have side effects. Your treatment team will discuss these with you before you start treatment. Talk to your doctor or nurse about any side effects you are experiencing.
Living with advanced cancer
Most people continue to have treatment for advanced cancer as part of palliative care, as it helps manage the cancer and improve their day-to-day lives. Many people think that palliative care is for people who are dying but palliative care is for any stage of advanced cancer. There are doctors, nurses and other people who specialise in palliative care.
Treatment may include chemotherapy, radiation therapy or another type of treatment. It can help in these ways:
- slow down how fast the cancer is growing
- shrink the cancer
- help you to live more comfortably by managing symptoms, such as pain.
Treatment depends on:
- where the cancer started
- how far it has spread
- your general health
- your preferences and what you want to do.
Ask your doctor about treatment and palliative care services that may help you.
Support for carers, family and friends of someone with cancer
Caring for someone with cancer can be difficult sometimes. If you are caring for someone with cancer, these organisations can help: