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Understanding Cancer

Andrew Bellingham

Andrew Bellingham

Pharmacist | 20+ Years | BPharm | Dip Clin Pharm

Statistics have shown that 1 in 2 of us will develop some form of cancer in our lifetime. While that is very daunting to hear, and is understandable to want to avoid, it does make it clear that the likelihood is that unfortunately we are likely to know someone who has, or will have, cancer.

To better support you, or those you know, we have answered some of the most frequently asked questions about cancer.

What is cancer?

Many people think of cancer as a specific disease. But the definition of cancer is actually a condition where abnormal cells divide uncontrollably. These cells can then spread and invade healthy tissue in the body.

When cancer begins in one area, before spreading to other parts of the body, it is referred to as metastasis.

In a healthy body, the trillions of cells it’s made of grow and divide, as the body needs them to function daily. Healthy cells have a specific life cycle, reproducing and dying off in a way that is determined by the type of cell. New cells take the place of old or damaged cells as they die. Cancer disrupts this process and leads to abnormal growth in cells. It’s caused by changes or mutations in DNA.

What are the most common types of cancer?

In the absence of cancer, cells are supposed to reproduce and die in a very precise cycle. Whereas with cancer, changes in the DNA has caused that cycle to be disrupted. This can happen in any part of your body, and in a number of different ways. Which is why there are over 200 types of cancer.

The most common cancers are breast, lung, prostate and bowel cancer.

What are the main symptoms of cancer?

Cancer can present differently for each person, even the same type, so it’s important to always be aware of what your normal is. If there are suddenly any changes to your body that you can’t explain, speak to your GP about your concerns.

There are a few symptoms that you should always speak to a doctor about. These include:

  • Unexplained bleeding
  • Sudden lumps
  • Changes to your bowel movements

It’s important to note that in many cases, these signs associated with cancer can be caused by something else. But you should get checked regardless, and familiarise yourself with other common symptoms of cancer including; certain types of moles, unexplained weight loss, bloating or bleeding, extensive coughing, breathlessness, headaches and chest pain, etc.

What causes cancer?

The actual cause of cancer is mutations in your DNA, however there are some risk factors that make it more likely. These can be environmental or genetic, for example.

Unfortunately there is no certain way to prevent cancer, but there are some steps you can take to significantly reduce your risk. This includes:

  • Exercising regularly
  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Not smoking

How does cancer start?

Cancer begins when one or a group of cells start to change. Not all cell changes will necessarily become cancerous. Your body can repair itself before this happens.

Is cancer a virus?

Cancer itself isn’t a virus, but it can be caused by viruses such as HPV.

What questions should I ask about cancer treatment?

You can and should ask any question you want if you are to have treatment. The doctors and nurses are there to help you in all stages. They are there to make you feel comfortable, as well as treat you.

There are some questions about your treatment that you can refer back to when you speak to your doctor.

How long can cancer grow undetected?

This varies greatly on the type of cancer. Some are much more easily detected than others. There are some cancers with visual signs that can be easy to diagnose. Some remain undetected for over a decade.

Read about the cancers that are harder to detect

What happens at the first oncology appointment?

In the UK, your first oncology appointment will usually be where your doctor will discuss treatment options with you. They’ll let you know what options are available to you, what course of treatment they recommend, and what that may mean for you. This could include what side effects they are, how effective they may be, and how long it is likely to take.

These appointments can take a few hours as they are quite comprehensive, and may include a physical examination.

Make the most of your first appointment by asking any questions you may have. It’s important that you feel as comfortable as possible with your decision.

The word ‘cancer’ can be scary to hear or even think about. Here in the UK, you can speak to your doctor about these fears, and they will try to help you.


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