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Cancer is a disease of the cells in the body, and there are over 200 different types. Normally, cells gradually age and die, so they reproduce by splitting themselves and dividing. However, this process can get out of control, and the cells develop a lump, called a tumour.
Benign or malignant?
A tumour can be one of two categories, either benign, which poses no threat or danger to the body, or malignant, meaning the tumour is cancerous. In order to determine this, the cells are examined under a microscope, in a procedure called a biopsy.
Malignant tumours can spread to other parts of the body, as the cells can travel around the body.
85% of cancers are carcinomas, which means the cancer starts in the cells of the skin or lining of the organs – these cancers include breast, lung, prostate and large bowel cancer.
Leukaemia and lymphomas are more rare types of cancer, and the cancerous cells occurs in the tissue and bone marrow.
The rarest group of cancer is sarcomas. This is cancer that forms in the muscle, bone, or fatty tissue.
Cancer can be treated by various methods, including surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. If detected early enough, cancer can be cured. However, if left undetected, the cancer may become terminal, and may have spread and developed to such an extent it cannot be treated.
Cancer is caused by a variety of different factors, some of which can be avoided and some of which cannot.
Age can be an important factor – most types of cancer become more likely as age increases.
Some cancers are hereditary, as the person is already born with the modified gene that causes cancer. This is called a ‘genetic predisposition’.
A weakened immune system can also contribute. Those that suffer from AIDS, rare medical syndromes that affect immunity, or have had organ transplants may be more susceptible to cancer.
Diet and general health can also increase the risk of cancer – in particular eating too much red and processed meat and not enough fresh fruit and vegetables. Drinking too much alcohol, not taking enough exercise and being overweight can also contribute.
Tobacco can cause a variety of different cancers, either through direct or passive smoking.
The sun can also cause cancer, with ultraviolet radiation being the cause of most skin cancers.
Some viruses can cause genetic changes in cells, which may make them more likely to become cancerous.
Cancer of the genital and anal areas can be caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) Liver cancer is linked to Hepatitis B and C.
The kind of treatment given depends on the type of cancer and how developed it is.
Some types of cancer are very slow growing and may not cause any issues for many years. A doctor will monitor the cancer through active surveillance.
Surgery involves an operation to remove a tumour. This is usually used when the cancer hasn’t spread to other parts of the body.
Radiotherapy is treatment using high energy x-rays to destroy the cancerous cells. It is carefully administered so that only it treats the affected area and does not damage healthy cells. Radiotherapy does cause side effects, which commonly include tiredness, nausea, diarrhoea, stiff muscles and joints, hair loss, sore skin and loss of appetite.
Chemotherapy consists of anti-cancer drugs, of which there are over 90 types. They are usually administered directly into the vein via a drip. Again, there are side effects, including feeling very tired especially after the treatment. The drugs damage the cells in order to stop them multiplying. However a side effect of this is that it can stop as many new cells being produced. Hair, skin and nails need a constant supply of new cells, so may suffer as a result of the chemotherapy.
Some cancerous cells depend on certain hormones to divide and grow. Hormonal therapy alters the levels of hormones in the body. The side effects depends on the kind of drugs given, but can include tiredness, menopausal symptoms and effects on muscles and bones.
This involves monoclonal antibiotics – drugs which can recognise and find specific cells in the body and destroy them. They can also interfere with how cancer uses ‘chemical messengers’ to produce more cells. Side effects include rashes and swellings, flu-like symptoms and lower blood pressure.
When is the right time to seek help?
There are some initial signs and symptoms of cancer that it is important to keep an eye out for. You should see your GP if you experience/notice any of the following:
- a lump anywhere on the body
- coughing, breathlessness or hoarseness that lasts more than two weeks
- a change in bowel habits – unexplained diarrhoea or constipation, blood in the stool
- moles – changes in appearance, irregular shape, jagged edges, more then one colour, bigger than 7mm in diameter, itchy, crusty or bleeding
- unexplained weight loss
- changes in the skin
- night sweats
Coming to terms with a cancer diagnosis is difficult for the individual and their family. Anxiety, stress and anger levels are heightened, and the idea of being in a life threatening situation can be difficult to cope with. The individual may feel they don’t want to burden their family and friends with their problems and fears, or find themselves unable to.
Counselling may be offered to the patient as part of the cancer treatment, but it can sometimes be beneficial for family members too.
Counselling will of course not cure cancer. However, it can help provide better coping strategies, and deal with any mental health issues which may arise. Having a place to talk about feelings free of judgement can also be very useful.
With terminal cases, counselling can be an invaluable tool for everyone close to the individual, and the individual themselves. A counsellor can help with coming to terms with the diagnosis, dealing with practicalities, and helping those deal with grief.
- One in three people will develop cancer at some point in their lives.
- 65% of all newly diagnosed cancer cases occur in those aged 65 or over.
- Less than 1% of new cancer cases are diagnosed in 0-14 year olds.
- In men, the most common cancers are prostate, lung, large bowl and bladder.
- In women, the most common cancers are breast, large bowl, lung and ovary.
- There are 298,000 new cases of cancer diagnosed per year.
- 1 in 10 cancers occur in 25-49 year olds.
- There are over 200 types of cancer, but 4 types (breast, lung, large bowel and prostate), account for over half of all cases.