Cancer - an overview

Written by: 
Dr Paola Accalai

Cancer is a complex disease to understand, both in terms of what it is and how it is managed, but here is a comprehensive overview written in plain English to help make it as easy to grasp as possible.

The term cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. covers a wide variety of conditions that share certain common characteristics. In all of them, the starting point is a group of cells that behave abnormally, dividing uncontrollably and spreading to nearby tissues or to distant sites in the body. This can cause a variety of harmful effects that eventually may prove fatal.

Many cancers are thought to be attributable to lifestyle and environmental factors, and as such are potentially preventable

Cancer consistently ranks as one of the world's leading causes of death - in 2007, it accounted for 7.9 million deaths or 13 per cent of all deaths globally.

Since cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. becomes more common as people get older, its incidenceThe number of new episodes of a condition arising in a certain group of people over a specified period of time. has been increasing with the growing proportion of older people in many populations around the world. The World Health Organization (WHO) predicts that cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. will be responsible for 12 million deaths worldwide each year by 2030.

Cancer can arise anywhere in the body. The incidenceThe number of new episodes of a condition arising in a certain group of people over a specified period of time. of different types varies from country to country and between men and women. Among men the most common causes of cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. death worldwide are cancers of the lung, stomach, liverA large abdominal organ that has many important roles including the production of bile and clotting factors, detoxification, and the metabolism of proteins, carbohydrates and fats., colonThe large intestine., oesophagusThe gullet, the part of the gastrointestinal system that extends down from the mouth cavity to the stomach. and prostate. For women, they are cancers of the breast, lung, stomach, colonThe large intestine. and cervixAny neck-like structure; most commonly refers to the neck of the uterus.. The WHO estimates that about 30 per cent of all deaths from cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. could be prevented.

See the Prostate cancer mini-site

See the Cervical cancer mini-site

How does cancer happen?

Most forms of cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. arise initially from a change in a single cellThe basic unit of all living organisms. that enables it to override the body's normal mechanisms for repair and replacement. Normally, old or faulty cells are eliminated by a process of cellThe basic unit of all living organisms. death, known as apoptosisA natural process of programmed cell death, for example, when cells are old or damaged., in which the cells effectively commit suicide, to enable their replacement by new, healthy cells. Usually, in adults, the number of new cells formed balances the number of old cells dying. Sometimes however, the body's ability to regulate cellThe basic unit of all living organisms. death is lost and this balance is distorted. Increasing numbers of abnormal cells are formed that begin to divide and reproduce without the normal limits.

Often this creates a lump, or tumour. A tumour may be benign if it remains confined to its local area. It may cause symptoms from pressure of the lump on surrounding tissues, but is otherwise harmless. Sometimes, however, the abnormal cells also develop the ability to grow into nearby tissues, or to spread through the bloodstream or lymphatic circulation to other areas of the body. The tumour is then described as malignantDescribes a tumour resulting from uncontrolled cell division that can invade other tissues and may spread to distant parts of the body..

This ability to spread is what defines cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body., and is responsible for its most dangerous effects. Spread to the area surrounding the tumour is known as local invasion, while spread to distant sites in the body is called metastasisThe spread of a malignant tumour to other parts of the body..

The cellular changes that initiate cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. are in fact not uncommon. Usually though, the body's immune systemThe organs specialised to fight infection., which protects against internal threats as well as infections and other foreign invaders, quickly detects these abnormal cells and eliminates them. Cancer can only take hold when the abnormal cells can also evade this immune surveillance.

Types of cancer

Most cancers - about nine in ten - arise from the cells that cover or line body surfaces, organs and glands, such as the skin or the lining of the gastrointestinal tractThe gut, which begins at the mouth and ends at the anus. and lungs. These cells, called epithelial cells, are normally rapidly-dividing as surfaces are continually renewed, and cancers that arise in them are known as carcinomas. Most breast and prostate cancers are carcinomas.

Other less common types of cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. are:

  • Sarcomas, which develop from the body's supporting structures and connective tissues, such as bones, cartilage, muscleTissue made up of cells that can contract to bring about movement. and fatOne of the three main food constituents (with carbohydrate and protein), and the main form in which energy is stored in the body.
  • Leukaemias, which develop from bloodA fluid that transports oxygen and other substances through the body, made up of blood cells suspended in a liquid.-producing cells in bone marrowTissue within the bones where blood cells are formed.
  • Lymphomas, which develop in the cells of the lymphatic systemVessels that carry lymphatic fluid, a fluid derived from the blood., comprising the network of lymph vessels and nodes, the spleen, tonsils and thymus that work to protect the body against disease
  • Myelomas, which originate in a type of bone marrowTissue within the bones where blood cells are formed. cellThe basic unit of all living organisms. producing bloodA fluid that transports oxygen and other substances through the body, made up of blood cells suspended in a liquid. proteins.

Five to ten per cent of all cancers are thought to be directly
related to geneticRelating to the genes, the basic units of genetic material. defects

Risk factors

A number of factors that increase the risk of cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. have been identified.

Lifestyle and environmental factors

Many cancers are thought to be attributable to lifestyle and environmental factors, and as such are potentially preventable. One large study of almost 80,000 middle-aged women in the USA suggested that around two-fifths of all deaths from cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. could be avoided by following four lifestyle habits: never smoking, taking regular physical activity, eating a healthy diet, and avoiding becoming overweight.

Lifestyle factors that have been implicated in an increased risk of some types of cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. include:

  • Smoking cigarettes or using other forms of tobacco
  • Eating certain foods such as fried foods and red meat
  • Having insufficient fruit, vegetable and fibre intake
  • Low levels of vitamin D
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Exposure to any form of radiation, including excessive ultraviolet radiation from sunlight
  • Exposure to certain environmental chemicals, such as asbestos or pollutants
  • Infection or infestation with certain bacteriaA group of organisms too small to be seen with the naked eye, which are usually made up of just a single cell., virusesMicrobes that are only able to multiply within living cells. or parasites, such as hepatitis B virusA microbe that is only able to multiply within living cells., which can lead to liverA large abdominal organ that has many important roles including the production of bile and clotting factors, detoxification, and the metabolism of proteins, carbohydrates and fats. cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body., or human papilloma virusA sexually transmitted virus that can cause genital warts and may also have a role in the development of various cancers., which may cause cervical cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body.
  • Obesity
  • Physical inactivity.

Age

The incidenceThe number of new episodes of a condition arising in a certain group of people over a specified period of time. of cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. rises sharply with increasing age. This is believed to be partly due to accumulating risk factors - the longer you live, the more of these you are likely to encounter.

In addition, cellThe basic unit of all living organisms. repair mechanisms become less efficient with age and the ability to regulate cellThe basic unit of all living organisms. death and replacement is impaired.

With increasing age there is also an accumulation of harmful changes to the geneticRelating to the genes, the basic units of genetic material. material of cells, known as mutations. Such mutations can increase the risk that cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. will develop.

Changes to genes

Altered genes that increase the likelihood of a person developing cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. are called oncogenes; they are formed from mutations in normal genes. Five to ten per cent of all cancers are thought to be directly related to geneticRelating to the genes, the basic units of genetic material. defects. On the other hand, certain genes act to prevent these cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body.-promoting changes; these are called tumour suppressor genes.

Some examples of cancers that can be, although are not always, due to geneticRelating to the genes, the basic units of genetic material. mutations include:

Breast and ovarian cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body.

Around one in 20 cases of breast cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. is due to an abnormal change, or mutationA change in the genetic material (DNA) of a cell, or the change this this causes in a characteristic of the individual, which is not caused by normal genetic processes. , in one of two genes called BRCA1 and BRCA2. Having a BRCA1 mutationA change in the genetic material (DNA) of a cell, or the change this this causes in a characteristic of the individual, which is not caused by normal genetic processes. means that a woman has a risk of developing breast cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. of around seven in ten, and is also at elevated risk of ovarian cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. and possibly cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. at other sites. BRCA2 mutations can also increase the risk of breast cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. in men.

Colorectal cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body.

Close relatives of people with cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. of the colonThe large intestine. or rectum have an increased risk of developing colorectal cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. themselves; in fact, about one in five people with colorectal cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. have such a family history. The more people in a person's family who have had colorectal cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body., the more likely they are to develop it themselves. For example, if you have one affected first-degree relative (a parent, sibling or child - with whom you share half of your genes), your risk is doubled; if you have two affected first-degree relatives, you have a five-fold increased risk.

Prostate cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body.

Around one in 20 people with prostate cancer have a family history of the condition. It is thought that a number of genes may be involved in increasing this risk.

Although it is highly important that you see your doctor as soon as possible if you experience any of these symptoms, in fact they probably do not mean cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. in most people

Symptoms

The symptoms of cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. vary depending on what part of the body is affected. In general, symptoms may be categorised as follows.

Local symptoms are due to the direct effects of the tumour on local tissues and may include:

  • A lump or thickening
  • Pain
  • Sores or ulcers that fail to heal, or a change in a mole
  • Bleeding, for example from the rectum or into the urine (haematuria)
  • A persistently hoarse voice.

Symptoms from metastasisThe spread of a malignant tumour to other parts of the body. are due to the spread of cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. cells to other parts of the body, and may include:

  • Swollen glands
  • Coughing up bloodA fluid that transports oxygen and other substances through the body, made up of blood cells suspended in a liquid. (haemoptysis)
  • Bone pain and fractures.

Systemic symptoms are general symptoms, not localised to one part of the body, and may include:

  • Weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Lethargy and fatigue
  • Intense sweating at night ('night sweats').

Many of these symptoms may be caused by conditions that are not cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body.. However, if you do experience any of them, it is important to see your doctor, as early treatment is more likely to be successful.

Some research in the UK has produced an estimate of the degree to which such 'alarm symptoms' could predict a diagnosisThe process of determining which condition a patient may have. of cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body..

The study found that among people with bloodA fluid that transports oxygen and other substances through the body, made up of blood cells suspended in a liquid. in their urine, 7.4 per cent of men and 3.4 per cent of women developed urinary tract cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. over the following three years.

Coughing up bloodA fluid that transports oxygen and other substances through the body, made up of blood cells suspended in a liquid. was associated with a diagnosisThe process of determining which condition a patient may have. of respiratory tractThe parts of the body that are involved in respiration. The respiratory tract includes the nasal passages, throat (pharynx), windpipe (trachea), bronchi and lungs. cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. within three years for 7.5 per cent of men and 4.3 per cent of women.

In other words, although it is highly important that you see your doctor as soon as possible if you experience any of these symptoms, in fact they most probably do not mean that you have cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body..

How is cancer diagnosed?

Your doctor will ask you a number of questions and examine you carefully to try to diagnose the cause of your symptoms. You may also need to have various tests, such as bloodA fluid that transports oxygen and other substances through the body, made up of blood cells suspended in a liquid. tests, scans, and a biopsyThe removal of a small sample of cells or tissue so that it may be examined under a microscope. The term may also refer to the tissue sample itself. or exploratory surgery. One example of a bloodA fluid that transports oxygen and other substances through the body, made up of blood cells suspended in a liquid. test used to help diagnose cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. is prostate specific antigenA substance that prompts the immune system to fight infection with antibodies. (PSA), which is often elevated in prostate cancer.

A number of different scans are available, including X-ray, CT (computed tomography) and MRI (magnetic resonance imagingA technique for imaging the body that uses electromagnetic waves and a strong magnetic field.). The choice of scan depends on which part of the body is thought to be involved; for example, MRIAn abbreviation for magnetic resonance imaging, a technique for imaging the body that uses electromagnetic waves and a strong magnetic field. can be used to show an image of the bone marrowTissue within the bones where blood cells are formed. whereas CTA scan that generates a series of cross-sectional X-ray images. cannot.

Cancer is often diagnosed by removing a small piece of the suspect tissue and examining the cells under a microscope to see if they are cancerousMalignant, a tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body.. This is known as a biopsy. If you have been diagnosed with cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body., your doctor may suggest that you have a lymph node biopsyThe removal of a small sample of cells or tissue so that it may be examined under a microscope. The term may also refer to the tissue sample itself. to check whether the cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. has spread. Sometimes cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. is diagnosed only after an operation to remove a suspicious lump, when samples of the tissue can be examined under a microscope, like those from a biopsyThe removal of a small sample of cells or tissue so that it may be examined under a microscope. The term may also refer to the tissue sample itself..

Classification

There are two main labels that doctors use to describe the severity of cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body.: grade and stage.

Grade

  • The degree to which cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. cells differ from those of the normal tissue in the same area of the body is known as the grade of the tumour. The lower the grade, the more closely the tumour resembles normal tissue and the less aggressively it is likely to behave
  • The grade can be determined by examining cells under a microscope following a biopsyThe removal of a small sample of cells or tissue so that it may be examined under a microscope. The term may also refer to the tissue sample itself. or surgical removal of the tumour.

Stage

  • The extent to which a cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. has spread is known as its stage, so to assess this doctors will talk about 'staging' a tumour. Again, the lower the stage, the better, as this indicates that the tumour has not spread as far into other tissues. The less the cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. has spread, the greater the chance of successful treatment
  • The stage of the tumour can be determined using biopsies of nearby lymph nodesSmall swellings along the lymphatic system that filter lymph, a fluid derived from the blood, and produce antibodies and a type of white blood cells, lymphocytes. to assess whether they are involved, and scans or surgery to show which internal organs are affected.

The grade and stage of a cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. play a key role in treatment decisions. Treatment is more likely to be successful for a low-grade tumour that has not spread far. If someone has an aggressive cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. that has already spread, being aware of this beforehand can help to avoid unnecessary discomfort and side-effects from surgery and other treatments that may not be beneficial.

Healthy cells are able to repair radiation damage more easily than cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. cells, and should recover between cycles of radiotherapy

Treatment

It is important that people with cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. are cared for by a multidisciplinaryRelating to a group of healthcare professionals with different areas of specialisation. team - a group of doctors, nurses and healthcare specialists from a variety of backgrounds.

Most people with cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. will have several different types of treatment over the course of their therapy. It is important that your doctor explains all your options to you, so that you can choose the path that is best for you. Self-help groups and internet sites are often another rich source of information.

Broadly speaking, the treatment options are surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapyThe use of chemical substances to treat disease, particularly cancer..

Surgery

Surgery may be the only treatment needed in some types of cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body., for example, early-stage tumours of the breast or gastrointestinal tractThe gut, which begins at the mouth and ends at the anus., sarcomas affecting soft tissues, and tumours involving a woman's reproductive system.

As well as operations to remove the tumour to try to cure the cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body., surgery may also be used to alleviate symptoms in advanced disease - this is known as palliative surgery.

Radiotherapy

Radiotherapy uses a type of radiation known as ionising radiation to try to kill cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. cells. Because cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. cells divide very rapidly, radiation should affect them more than it affects normal cells nearby. However, inevitably it may damage some normal cells as well, so the radiation is usually targeted as precisely as possible to the cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. area. Fortunately, healthy cells are able to repair radiation damage more easily than cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. cells, and should recover between cycles of radiotherapy.

As with surgery, radiotherapy may be used with the aim of curing cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. (curative radiotherapy) or easing symptoms (palliative radiotherapy).

The radiation dose is usually delivered in a course of treatments, often over five days a week.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy drugs aim to kill cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. cells, so are called cytotoxic drugs. There are several reasons why chemotherapyThe use of chemical substances to treat disease, particularly cancer. may be used, for example: as the sole curative treatment, to shrink a tumour to a size that can be surgically removed, to reduce the chance of relapse, or to relieve symptoms (palliative chemotherapyThe use of chemical substances to treat disease, particularly cancer.). It is common to give several drugs in combination to increase their effectiveness.

Read more on Chemotherapy

How do doctors help with cancer symptoms?

Doctors provide help with pain control and deal with symptoms including nausea, breathlessness and itching.

Pain control

Modern pain management aims to prevent pain occurring by giving regular doses of painkillers before pain breaks through. This is much more effective than waiting for pain to recur before treating it.

Nausea, vomiting and constipation

Constipation is a frequent complaint among people with cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. and a common side-effect of some painkillers. It can be effectively treated with a high-fibre diet, maintaining a good fluid intake and medications such as laxatives. Nausea and vomiting can also be a side-effect of some chemotherapy courses. It can usually be controlled by drugs called anti-emetics, given either taken as tablets or by injection.

Breathlessness

Breathlessness due to involvement of the lungs in cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. can be helped by certain drugs or by using oxygen as prescribed by your doctor. Relaxation techniques have also been shown to help.

Itching

An infuriating sense of itchiness, known as pruritus, may occur in certain cancers. Substances that help to soothe the skin, known as emollients, often help and are available as creams, ointments and bath oils. Drugs called antihistamines can be used as well; they are usually taken at night because they may have a sedative effective.

Integrated therapies

Some integrated therapies have been suggested to help people with cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. control their symptoms, reduce side-effects of cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. treatments or perhaps to enhance the effects of treatment. Examples include acupressure to relieve nausea. As some complementary treatments can be harmful or interfere with conventional cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. treatments, it is important to discuss any therapies that interest you with your doctor first.

Psychological support

Receiving a diagnosisThe process of determining which condition a patient may have. of cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. is usually a traumatic experience. Moreover, a cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. diagnosisThe process of determining which condition a patient may have. often has a huge impact on friends and family as well. People cope in different ways, but many may find solace in support groups, and gaining knowledge and understanding of the condition can often ease anxiety.

Help and support to cope with the psychological effects of cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. has been shown to be very effective. Your doctor may also suggest medications to relieve anxiety or depression. There is also some evidence that psychological support can lessen the impact of chemotherapyThe use of chemical substances to treat disease, particularly cancer. side-effects, and may even improve survival.

A range of support is available to help people who have been diagnosed with cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body.. This may include:

  • Stress management training, for example techniques such as breathing exercises and progressive muscleTissue made up of cells that can contract to bring about movement. relaxation
  • Cognitive-behavioural therapy, which aims to identify and modify unhelpful thinking patterns
  • Counselling or psychotherapy
  • Group therapy
  • Music therapy for relaxation or emotional release.

Screening

In general, the sooner a cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. is detected, the better the chances of successful treatment. That's why everyone needs to be aware of common symptoms of cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body., and why it's important to see a doctor promptly if you notice anything worrying.

Some cancers can be detected at an early stage by medical tests, even when a person has no signs or symptoms of the disease. Testing people in this way is called screening. Some examples of screening for specific cancers include:

Breast cancer

Screening for breast cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. may involve clinical breast examination by a doctor or nurse, and special breast X-rays called mammograms. Many countries have screening programmes for breast cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. in which women are invited for tests at regular intervals, depending on their age and level of risk.

Cervical cancer

Tests that look for early changes in cervical cells that may progress to cervical cancer are widely used in screening programmes. These enable changes to be detected at a stage where they can be treated to prevent them progressing to cervical cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body..

Colorectal cancer

There are several ways to screen for colorectal cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body.. These include checking samples of faeces for traces of bloodA fluid that transports oxygen and other substances through the body, made up of blood cells suspended in a liquid. (faecal occult bloodA fluid that transports oxygen and other substances through the body, made up of blood cells suspended in a liquid. tests) and viewing the inside of the colonThe large intestine. with a special camera, known as flexible sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopyExamination of the colon and rectum with a colonoscope, an imaging instrument that is inserted through the anus..

Prostate cancer

There is debate about the advantages and disadvantages of national screening programmes for prostate cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. - learn more about this at the prostate cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. hot topic page, PSA screening debate.