What is Cancer?

What is Cancer?

Cancer is a name for a group of similar diseases. Cancers begin in the cells in your body. When damaged genes cause them to behave abnormally, the cells grow into a lump called a tumour. Most cancers start in an organ, called the ‘primary site’. For example, bladder cancer begins in the bladder, lung cancer begins in the lung.

Your cancer diagnosis

Being told you have cancer is an extremely personal experience. It stands to reason that as we’re all uniquely different people, so too will be your cancer journey. Like any new situation, cancer is a learning experience, with many people surprised about what their cancer teaches them and discovering the inner depths of courage and resource they never knew they had. Read more here.

Learning More

Many people find learning about the science of cancer helps them to deal with their own diagnosis, as it helps them feel empowered through knowing more and gives them a level of control when discussing their treatment options and possible outcomes with their health care team.

Studies have shown that cancer patients who are well informed tend to fare better than and may experience fewer side effects than people who know less about their disease.

The origins of cancer begin in the cells of the body. Normally cells grow, divide and produce more cells as the old ones die, which keeps the body healthy. But if the genetic material of a cell is damaged or changed, these abnormal cells can invade other tissue in the body. The extra cells form a mass of tissue called a growth or tumour. A cancer is categorised by where the disease starts, not by where it spreads to.The five main types are:

Carcinoma begins in the skin or tissues that line or cover the internal organs.
Sarcoma begins in the bone, cartilage, fat, muscle, blood vessels or other connective or supportive tissue.
Leukemia starts in blood-forming tissue such as bone marrow.
Lymphoma and myeloma begin in the cells of the immune system.
Central nervous system cancers begin in the tissues of the brain and spinal cord.

It’s important to note that not all tumours are cancerous. A tumour that’s ‘benign’ isn’t cancerous, while a tumour that’s ‘malignant’, is. Benign cancer cells don’t invade nearby tissue and spread, although they can still be serious. If the abnormal cells in a malignant tumour ‘metastasise’, that means they spread and destroy tissues around them and can also spread through the blood and lymph systems.

More information on types of cancer:

What causes cancer?

There are some things that are commonly known to greatly increase your risk of getting cancer such as smoking, a bad diet, too much sun (or ultraviolet light) and substance abuse. Genetics also play a large part in whether someone develops cancer as some cancers are inherited, which may be seen by looking at your family history.

If there’s a history of a type of cancer in your family, such as breast cancer, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor and discuss testing for your genetic risk.

There are lots of myths about cancer, its causes and its cures. Your GP or health care team can talk to you about any concerns or questions you have about cancer. You should never feel any questions isn’t a worthwhile question.

Risk factors

A risk factor is anything associated with increasing the chance of developing cancer. Some of these are listed below. It is hard to know how much any single risk factor contributes to developing cancer. For most cancers the causes are not fully understood. Some factors place us at greater risk:

  • tobacco smoking
  • alcohol consumption
  • poor diets
  • diets high in processed meat or fat
  • being overweight or obese
  • physical inactivity
  • UV radiation
  • infections –like hepatitis B or C, or HPV infection
  • exposure to specific chemicals, dusts or industrial processes
  • family history and genetic susceptibility

What are the signs and symptoms?

Just as there are many types of cancer, so too are there many signs and symptoms. Some people might experience weight loss or extreme tiredness, but that could just as easily be caused by something else. There are some symptoms you shouldn’t ignore, for instance persistent mouth ulcers or cough, breast or testicle lumps, changes in bowel habits and changes in moles on the skin.

Some of the most common ways of finding cancer include:
• Routine physical check-up at GP
• Follow-up examination of a lump or growth
• Lab testing of blood, urine or tissue
• Screening test such as a cervical screening test, mammogram or colonoscopy
• X-rays and digital imaging (including CT or CAT, PET or MRI) done for other reasons such as an injury.

Cancer Today

Cancer today is one of the defining diseases of recent decades. Globally there isn’t a single person who hasn’t been personally affected either through having it themselves or knowing someone close who has been diagnosed with it.

It’s estimated that in 2017 over 134,000 new cases of cancer were diagnosed in Australia.

More statistics on cancer are here.

And while being aware of cancer can’t prepare you for it, if you or someone close to you has received a recent diagnosis, you might want to find out as much as possible about what emotional, physical and psychological changes lie ahead. Although cancer has affected many of us in different ways, the research and discovery that is being done globally is constantly advancing, finding new cures and making the prognosis of those diagnosed much better than it was even a decade ago.

Being diagnosed with cancer is a life-changing event, not a life ending one. We are here to help you deal through your cancer experience with information, practical advice and references you might find useful.

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