Every two minutes, someone in the UK is diagnosed with cancer. Cancer is a medical condition with more than 200 different forms, each with its own symptoms and treatments. We have discussed cancer briefly in our guide to 20 medical conditions which affect older people, but today’s article will take a detailed look at the signs of cancer, the importance of early diagnosis, and the various treatments. We’ll also be sharing some tips and resources for coping with cancer.
Sadly, 1 in 2 people will develop some form of cancer in their lifetime according to the NHS. With this in mind, it’s very important to stay informed. When cancer is diagnosed early, the chances of successful treatment are much higher.
What Is Cancer?
The NHS defines cancer as follows:
a condition where cells in a specific part of the body grow and reproduce uncontrollably. The cancerous cells can invade and destroy surrounding healthy tissue, including organs.
Usually, cancer begins with a lump of cancerous cells (a tumour) in one part of the body. In some cases, cancerous cells can break away from the primary tumour and spread to other parts of the body. This process is known as metastasis.
There is no surefire way to prevent cancer completely. However, Cancer Research UK states that 4 in 10 cases of cancer in the UK are preventable. Smoking and eating habits can massively increase the chances of developing the disease, as can over-exposure to pollution and other environmental factors. Perhaps the most effective way to prevent cancer is to quit smoking.
There are hundreds of different types of cancer. The most common types of cancer in the UK are:
- Breast Cancer
- Lung Cancer
- Prostate Cancer
- Bowel Cancer
Spotting the Signs of Cancer
Although cancer can affect people of all ages, your chances increase as you get older. Therefore, it’s important that we know our bodies and can tell when something isn’t quite right. There are various different symptoms and signs to look out for.
Perhaps the most common sign is a lump on your body, particularly in areas such as your breasts, armpit, testicles, groin, stomach or neck. Below are some other symptoms to look out for. They may not necessarily mean that you have cancer, but you should get them checked out by a GP regardless.
- A persistent cough – visit your GP if a cough lasts more than 3 weeks.
- Breathlessness – especially if it lasts longer than a month or if it is accompanied by a persistent cough.
- Changes in bowel habits – if you experience blood in your stools, stomach pain, persistent bloating or diarrhoea for no obvious reason, make an appointment with your GP.
- Bleeding – this includes blood in your urine, bleeding from your bottom, when you cough, in your vomit, or between periods.
- A new mole or changes to an existing mole look out for changes in colour, shape, and size.
- Mouth or tongue ulcer which won’t heal – contact your GP if an ulcer hasn’t healed after 3 weeks.
If you suffer from any of these symptoms or notice any changes in your body, you need to see your doctor as soon as possible. Furthermore, this list of symptoms is by no means exhaustive. If you notice any changes in your body, it’s always better to be safe than sorry. It’s far better to make an appointment and discover it’s nothing too serious, rather then delaying a possible diagnosis.
For a more detailed list of cancer warning signs, see the Cancer Research UK website.
The Importance of Early Diagnosis
Most cancers can be divided into four numbered stages. In the earliest stage, cancerous tumours are small and have not spread beyond the organ where they started. If cancer progresses into later stages before diagnosis, effective treatment can be difficult. Therefore, early diagnosis is hugely important. Getting an accurate diagnosis means that you can receive the proper treatment as soon as possible. This can prevent the condition from increasing in size or spreading around your body. Once cancer spreads, it becomes more difficult to treat and survival chances are generally lower.
Here are just a few examples, provided by Cancer Research UK, of the difference an early diagnosis can make in certain types of cancer:
- Breast Cancer – More than 90% of people diagnosed at the earliest stage survive their disease for at least five years.
- Lung Cancer – More than 80% of lung cancer patients will survive for at least a year if diagnosed at the earliest stage, compared to around 15% for people diagnosed at the most advanced stage.
- Bowel Cancer – More than 9 in 10 bowel cancer patients will survive the disease for more than five years if diagnosed at the earliest stage.
- Ovarian Cancer – More than 90% of people diagnosed with the earliest stage ovarian cancer survive their disease for at least five years compared to around 5% for women diagnosed with the most advanced stage of disease.
As previously mentioned, there are more than 200 different types of cancer, all of which are diagnosed and treated in different ways. Next, we’re going to take an in-depth look at some of the most common forms of the condition in the UK.
Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in the UK, with around 150 people receiving diagnoses every day. It is particularly common in women over the age of 50, but in rare cases men can develop it too.
About one in seven women will be diagnosed with breast cancer during their lifetime, however there is a good chance of recovery if it is detected in its early stages. It is very important for women check their breasts regularly, in order to identify any changes.
Symptoms To Look Out For
Breast cancer commonly starts in the cells that line the ducts of the breast. Here are the symptoms that you need to look out for:
- A lump or swelling in either of your armpits.
- A change in the size or shape of one or both breasts.
- A rash around the nipple.
- A dimpling on the skin of your breasts.
- A change in shape or feel of the breast.
If you notice any of these symptoms please visit your doctor as soon as possible. As we have mentioned, the effectiveness of treatment can depend on early diagnosis.
Around 44,000 people are diagnosed with lung cancer every year in the UK, making it one of the most common types of the disease. It is most common among older people, with over-75s representing more than 40% of UK cases. It’s comparatively rare in people under the age of 40.
There are two main types of lung cancer:
- Non-small-cell lung cancer – Accounting for more than 80% of cases. This can be either squamous cell carcinoma, adenocarcinoma or large-cell carcinoma.
- Small-cell lung cancer – A less common form of the disease which accounts for 15-20% of cases. Smoking is usually the cause.
Symptoms To Look Out For
In the early stages of lung cancer, there may be no symptoms at all. Symptoms develop as the condition progresses. The main symptoms to look out for include:
- A persistent, long-lasting cough.
- Coughing up blood or phlegm with blood in it.
- Persistent chest infections.
- Loss of appetite.
- Weight loss.
Of course, these symptoms could be signs of other conditions besides lung cancer. Overall, it is always best to get them checked out by your GP as quickly as possible.
Prostate cancer is the most common form of cancer in men in the UK, with more than 40,000 new cases every year. It is particularly common in older men over the age of 75. Cases are on the rise, but this is probably at least partly due to increasing awareness among the population. For a long time, many men have been either unaware of the symptoms or too embarrassed to seek medical examination.
For those who may be unaware, the prostate is a small gland at the base of the bladder. It starts out as the size of a walnut but gets bigger as men get older. Its main function is to help in the production of semen.
Most cases of prostate cancer (90%) start in the outer cells of the prostate. In most cases, these cancers grow extremely and are unlikely to spread, but some prostate cancers can grow quickly and spread to other parts of the body
Symptoms To Look Out For
In general, most people with prostate cancer will not experience symptoms until the tumour is large enough to press against the urethra. Once the condition has grown to this point, you may notice the following symptoms:
- Needing to urinate more frequently, especially at night.
- Difficulty in starting to urinate.
- Needing to rush to the toilet.
- Straining or taking a long time while urinating.
- Weak flow.
- Feeling that your bladder hasn’t emptied properly.
- Blood in urine or in semen.
If you notice any of these symptoms, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have prostate cancer. Regardless, you should make an appointment with your GP to be on the safe side.
This is another common form of cancer, mainly affecting people over the age of 50. There are different sections of the bowel in which the disease can develop.
Symptoms To Look Out For
There are three common symptoms of this condition:
- Blood in the stools.
- A change in your bowel habits (going more often, with looser stools)
- Lower abdominal pain, bloating or discomfort.
These symptoms are quite common and may not indicate cancer if they disappear after a short while. However, if you experience any of these symptoms for a long time you should visit your GP.
Treatment for Cancer
Thankfully, there are many different treatments available for different types of cancer.
In many cases, surgery can be incredibly effective. The earlier you receive a diagnosis, the more likely surgery will be able to remove any tumours.
The aim of cancer surgery is to remove the tumour as well as some normal tissue around it. The surgeon might also remove some of the lymph nodes near to the tumour in case the cancer has spread to them too.
Another common treatment for cancer is radiotherapy. This treatment uses radiation in an attempt to cure cancer, prevent it from returning, or relieve its symptoms. It works by damaging the DNA of the cells. However, it can also damage normal non-cancerous cells. This can cause side effects including tiredness, soreness, hair loss in the area of treatment. Patients receiving radiotherapy will normally have several different sessions over the course of multiple weeks.
Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells. According to Cancer Research UK there are currently more than 100 different chemotherapy drugs available with many more in development. Chemotherapy drugs are injected into the bloodstream which allows them to circulate throughout the body. This means it is effective in killing cancerous cells, but it also similarly damages healthy cells. Therefore, the side effects of chemotherapy can be unpleasant. Short term side effects include fatigue, nausea, hair loss, diarrhoea or constipation, and an increased risk of getting infections. A course of chemotherapy will normally be spread over several months.
A cancer diagnosis can be very overwhelming. Inevitably, it will bring up lots of different emotions for both you and your loved ones. It’s therefore very important to seek out whatever support you need. Above all, you should remember that there is no right or wrong way to feel.
Your healthcare team may include counsellors or psychologists who you can talk to. There are also several organisations and charities which can offer you support, including:
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Editor’s Note: This article was updated on 4 June 2020 to reflect current information.
Originally published 17 November 2016.