The human body is made up of many different types of cells, each contributing to different tissues and organs. They all divide and multiply in a controlled manner to repair damage and to grow.
Cancer is a condition whereby this process of growth and repair goes wrong in a cell, or group of cells, and they continue to grow and divide abnormally – even when there is no need for them to do so.
If cells continue to divide when new cells are not needed, a cluster of tissue (or lump) forms called a tumour or primary growth. This can be benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous). Your Doctor is able to tell whether a tumour is benign or malignant by examining a small sample of cells under a microscope. This is called a biopsy.
Benign tumours are not cancerous and are not able to spread to other parts of the body. They usually don’t need treatment, but if they do, they can be removed by simple surgery.
Malignant tumours are cancerous. This means that they can invade nearby parts of the body and may stop the cells there from working properly. Cells from malignant tumours can also break away and travel to other parts of the body via the lymphatic system or bloodstream, where they settle and form another tumour. These are called secondary growths, or metastases.
Due to the fact that this abnormal cell growth can affect virtually any type of cell in the body, there are over 200 kinds of cancer, each with different techniques to diagnose them and with different methods of treating them.
Many cancers can be successfully treated if detected early enough, so it is important to seek medical advice if you notice any persistent changes in your health. If you ignore the symptoms and it turns out to be cancer, the delay could mean that the cancer has spread and become less easy to treat.
Every cancer has its own signs and symptoms, but these are the most important to look out for:
- A lump anywhere in your body, e.g. breast or testicle.
- A change in a skin mole.
- A sore that does not heal.
- A persistent cough or hoarseness.
- Persistent indigestion or difficulty swallowing.
- Coughing up or vomiting blood.
- Change in normal bowel habit, such as persistent diarrhoea or constipation.
- Any bleeding in the urine or bowel motions and any abnormal vaginal bleeding.
- Unexplained weight loss.
- Unexplained loss of appetite.
Having one of these symptoms does not necessarily mean that you have cancer, but you should see your doctor immediately so that the situation can be fully assessed.