Cancer is not a single disease with a single type of treatment. There are more than 200 different types of cancer, each with its own name and treatment.Cancer starts in our cells. Cells are tiny building blocks that make up the organs and tissues of our body. Usually, these cells divide to make new cells in a controlled way. This is how our bodies grow, heal and repair.
Sometimes, this goes wrong and the cell becomes abnormal. The abnormal cell keeps dividing and making more and more abnormal cells. These cells form a lump, which is called a tumour.
Not all lumps are cancerous.
- A lump that is not cancerous (benign) cannot spread to anywhere else in the body
- A lump that is cancer (malignant) can grow into surrounding tissue
Cancer cells sometimes break away from the primary cancer and travel through the blood or lymphatic system to other parts of the body. Cancer cells that spread and develop into a tumour somewhere else in the body are called a secondary cancer
Cancer and Cell Types
It’s important for doctors to know what type of cancer a person has. The type of cancer is generally based on the part of your body and the type of cell where the cancer first developed.
The most common places for cancer to develop are the skin, lungs, breasts, prostate, colon and rectum.
There are three main types of cell where cancer develops:
- Epithelial cells. Cancers that develop in this type of cell are called carcinomas. About 80-90% of cancers are this type
- Cells of the blood and lymphatic system. Cancers that develop in this type of cell are called leukaemia’s and lymphomas. About 7% of cancers are this type
- Connective tissue cells. Cancers that develop in this type of cell are called sarcomas. About 1% of cancers are this type
Cancer can sometimes develop in other types of cell, but this is rare.
Knowing how your body normally looks and feels can help you be aware of any changes that could be caused by cancer. If you have any symptoms that are ongoing, unexplained or unusual for you it’s important to see your doctor.There are certain symptoms you should always have checked. Don’t be scared about getting symptoms checked by your doctor. The earlier cancer is found, the more likely it is to be cured. You won’t be wasting their time.
- Common symptoms of cancer include:
- Unexplained bleeding
- Unexplained weight loss
- A lump or swelling
- Unexplained pain
These symptoms can be caused by something other than cancer. However, it’s always best to have them checked by your GP, as soon as possible. You are not wasting your doctor’s time by getting your symptoms checked.
If you’ve already been to your doctor with symptoms but they haven’t gone away, it is important to see your doctor again.
If any symptoms or changes continue for a couple of weeks or more, speak to your doctor. This includes:
- A lump anywhere on your body
- A cough or hoarseness that lasts for more than three weeks
- A change in bowel habit that lasts for more than three weeks
- Any abnormal bleeding from your vagina or back passage, in your urine or when being sick (vomiting)
At the appointment, your GP will discuss any symptoms and may want to examine you. They won’t be able to tell you if you have cancer at this stage. But they may refer you for further tests. There are guidelines to help GPs know when to refer people to a specialist if their symptoms might be due to a cancer.
Knowing the symptoms of common cancers could make a real difference. Usually, the earlier cancer is found, the more likely it is to be cured. Below are some of the most common cancers in the UK.
- Lung cancer is common in both men and women. Smoking is the main cause of lung cancer, but non-smokers get it too
- Bowel cancer can affect both men and women. Most people who get bowel cancer are over 50
- Prostate cancer is the most common cancer in men. More than 41,700 men in the UK are diagnosed with it each year
- Kidney and bladder cancers are more common in men and people over 50
- Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women in the UK. Men can also get breast cancer, but this is rare
- Ovarian cancer is more common in women over 50
- Melanoma cancer is one of the most common cancers in people aged 15–34
- Mouth cancer is more common in men and people over 50
You’re not wasting your doctor's time by getting symptoms checked.
Some cancer treatments treat a particular area of the body. These are called localised treatments.
Surgery. An operation to remove the tumour is the main treatment for many types of cancer. It is usually used for cancers that are in one area of the body.
- Radiotherapy. High energy x-rays are used to destroy the cancer cells. By targeting the area affected by cancer, there is as little harm as possible to the normal cells. Other treatments treat the whole body. These are called systemic treatments
- Chemotherapy. This uses anti-cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells. There are many different chemotherapy drugs. Which you are given depends on the type of cancer you have
- Hormonal therapy. These therapies reduce the level of hormones in the body or block the hormones from reaching cancer cells. This can stop the cancer growing
- Targeted therapies. These destroy cancer cells, usually by interfering with the cancer’s ability to grow or survive
It’s quite common for a combination of these treatments to be used. Many of these can cause side-effects.
When you are first diagnosed with cancer, treatment is usually given to try to get rid of the cancer. Your doctor will decide which type of treatment you need. They will use a treatment or combination of treatments to help reduce the chances of any cancer cells remaining.
Unfortunately, cancer cells are sometimes left behind after treatment. If this happens, the cancer may come back. This can happen years after your initial treatment. Cancer can come back in the same area of the body or somewhere else in the body. Cancer that returns:
- In the same area of the body is known as a local recurrence
- In a different part of the body is called a metastasis or secondary cancer
Usually, treatment is used to control the cancer when it comes back. It is sometimes possible to use treatment to try and get rid of the cancer.