Cancerous cells divide more quickly than healthy cells. This increased rate of production causes the cells to build in clusters and form lumps known as tumours.
When cells spread to surrounding tissue or invade blood and lymph vessels, the tumour is referred to as malignant. Cancerous cells from malignant tumours can spread from the blood and lymph vessels to other parts of the body, where it is likely they will form secondary cancer.
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Facts and stats (sourced from NHS)
- An estimated 1 out of every 3 people will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their life.
- There are approximately 200 different types of cancer.
- 2/3 of all cancer patients are over 65 years old.
- The 4 most common cancers are, in descending order: breast cancer, lung cancer, bowel cancer and prostate cancer.
- 50% of all those currently diagnosed with cancer have one of the above.
- 250,000 new cases of cancer are diagnosed in the UK every year.
- 40,000 people are diagnosed with breast cancer every year.
The biggest cause of cancer is old age, with 2/3 of all diagnoses occurring in people over 65.
Other factors thought to cause cancer include:
- weak immune system
- exposure to UV rays
If you notice any sudden and unexplained change in your body, it is advisable to visit your GP. There are numerous symptoms of cancer that can also be attributed to other health conditions, so having one or more symptom does not immediately indicate the presence of cancer. Some symptoms may include:
If you discover a newly formed lump anywhere on your body, it is advisable to book an examination with your GP. Your GP will assess whether the lump is malignant or benign (non-cancerous).
If the lump appears cancerous then you will be referred to a specialist for further tests.
Sometimes non-cancerous lumps can develop. These are known as benign tumours and do not spread to surrounding tissue or other parts of the body; however, they can sometimes grow very large and press against surrounding organs. In this case, the benign lump may need to be surgically removed.
Changes to your bowel movements
Usually unexpected changes to your bowel movements indicate an underlying problem (not necessarily cancer). If the following changes continue for more than two weeks then you are advised to consult your GP:
- bloody stools
- sensation that bowels cannot be fully emptied, even after using the toilet
- diarrhoea or constipation for no obvious reason
- abdominal pains or pain from the back passage
Unexplained bleeding is always indicative of an underlying health problem but not necessarily cancer. If you notice any unexplained bleeding (i.e. any bleeding that does not occur from a wound or menstrual blood etc.) then it is advisable to consult your GP immediately. The following examples of unexplained bleeding could be a sign of cancer:
- Bleeding between periods (this could be a symptom of cancer of the womb or cervix).
- Blood from coughing (usually a sign of a serious chest infection, but occasionally a symptom of lung cancer).
- Bleeding from the back passage (most commonly caused by piles, but occasionally a symptom of bowel cancer).
- Blood in vomit (usually a symptom of a stomach ulcer, however it could be stomach cancer).
- Blood in urine (usually a sign of a bladder infection but possibly a symptom of kidney or bladder cancer).
Coughing, breathlessness and hoarseness
In most cases, coughing, breathlessness and hoarseness will be a symptom of a common cold. In some cases however, these can be symptoms of lung cancer.
If you have had a chesty cough or have felt breathless for more than two weeks, then it is advisable to see the GP. This especially applies if you find blood in your phlegm after you cough.
Most people have moles or blemishes somewhere on their body. It is important to keep a close eye on any moles you might have, especially if the mole:
- irregular or asymmetrical shape (more blobby than round)
- jagged or irregular border
- includes a number of different colours such as brown, black, red, pink or white
- larger than 7mm in diameter
- crusting, bleeding or itchy (a less common sign but not to be ignored).
Unexplained weight loss
If you have lost a noticeable amount weight in a short period of time and cannot attribute it to a change in diet, activity levels or stress and anxiety, then it is advisable to consult your GP. When an individual experiences weight loss due to cancer, there are usually accompanying symptoms such as pain, sickness and fatigue.
It is important to diagnose cancer in its earliest stages so that treatment can be organised as quickly as possible. The earlier the cancer is identified, the higher the chances are of getting rid of it.
Screenings are used to detect cancer either at an early stage or, in the case of cervical cancer, before they have even developed. The UK currently has 3 national screening programmes:
- breast cancer screening
- cervical cancer screening
- bowel cancer screening
- Blood tests: There are a number of tests used to identify inconsistencies or abnormalities in the blood. The blood tests monitor molecules such as sugars, fats, proteins and DNA, which can provide telltale signs of cancer.
- Biopsy: A biopsy is when the doctor takes a small sample of tissue from the suspected cancerous area for examination under a microscope. The sample is obtained from the affected area with a needle that sucks up cells.
- X-rays: X-rays are used to identify and photograph dense masses in the body.
- MRI scans: MRI scans (Magnetic Resonance Imaging), use magnetism to construct an image of the inside of the body. An MRI scan is able to take 3D pictures of organs. An MRI provides a more detailed image of the body than an x-ray can and as a result, is often used to scan the brain.
- CT scans: CT scans, sometimes called CAT scans, take multiple x-ray photographs of the body. The separate images are then put together to form a detailed 3D image that can be used to identify the exact location of the cancer.
- Ultrasound scans: Ultrasound scans build up a picture of the inside of the body using sound waves.
- PET scans: PET scans, (Positron Emission Tomography) are currently only available in a handful of hospitals due to being a relatively new development in cancer treatment. PET scans show particularly detailed images of the body and can show how something is working as well as showing what it looks like.
An endoscopy is a long, thin, flexible hose-like instrument that has a camera and light attached to the end. This is used to insert into a cavity such as the anus or gullet. Sometimes a surgeon will have to make a small incision to examine inaccessible places.
How serious is cancer?
When diagnosing a malignant tumour, the doctor will follow a set of guidelines to determine how serious it is and what course of treatment to take. They will tend to assess two factors:
- The size of the cancerous area.
- Whether or not it has already spread to other areas of the body.
All cancer is given a grade. The grade of the cancer depends on what it looks like under the microscope. A lower grade indicates that the cancer is growing slowly and a higher grade means the cancer is growing quickly.
- Grade I: Grade I cancer cells resemble normal cells and do not grow rapidly.
- Grade II: Grade II cancer cells do not look like normal cells and grow faster.
- Grade III: Grade III cancer cells look very abnormal and grow or spread aggressively.
All cancer is also allocated a stage. Stage describes the size of the tumour and how much it has spread from where it started.
- Stage 0: Stage 0 means that the cancer has remained where it started and is not spreading.
- Stage I: Stage I is when the tumour is less than 2cm in size and not spreading.
- Stage II: Stage II is when the tumour has grown to 2cm to 5cm with or without having spread to lymph node (where it can spread to other parts of the body). At this stage the cancer still has not spread anywhere else.
- Stage III: Stage III is when the tumour has grown to more than 5cm or has either fixed itself to the chest wall, muscle or skin, or spread to lymph nodes above the collarbone.
- Stage IV: when the tumour is any size but has definitely spread to other parts of the body.
Cancer treatment options
Due to the hundreds of different types of cancer and numerous grades and stages, treatment can vary greatly. The three most common treatments are:
There are also new and more experimental treatments available, such as:
- hormone therapy
- gene therapy
- biological therapy (includes immunotherapy, bone marrow and stem cell treatments).
There are a number of reasons why a patient will be given treatment for their cancer. These include:
- to cure the cancer
- to increase the likelihood of curing the cancer after surgery (this is called adjuvant treatment)
- to reduce the intensity of cancer symptoms
- to slow the spread of cancer and prolong life expectancy
Has nutrition got anything to do with cancer?
There are numerous studies suggesting a link between some foods and certain types of cancer. However, it would be a broad statement to claim that diet can directly cause or treat cancer.
Nutrition is thought to play an important part in the recovery and treatment process, however. Some cancers can cause the body to become malnourished. Malnourishment occurs when the body is unable to properly absorb nutrients from the foods eaten. This can lead to weight loss and a dramatic drop in energy levels. Side effects from certain treatments such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy can also make eating difficult. Some problems that can develop during the treatment of cancer include:
- a dry or sore mouth
- problems with swallowing and chewing
- feeling of sickness
- loss of appetite
- loss of smell and taste
All of these factors can make it difficult for the cancer patient to eat or even want to eat. A diet rich in energy but low in physical quantity is recommended for a patient experiencing eating difficulties. This way they can eat less and still receive the nutrients they need.
Energy can particularly be found in:
Below is a selection of helpful tips for adding extra energy to everyday foods at meal times, without taking supplements (advice taken from leading UK cancer charities):
Keep a jug of fortified milk in your fridge to use as a substitute for milk. To make your own fortified milk, add 2-4 tablespoons of dried milk powder to 1 pint of full fat cream.
- add fortified milk to cereals
- make porridge with cream and syrup or honey
- make tea or coffee with cream or fortified milk
- add honey to tea
- make a sandwich with plenty of butter or margarine
- slice cheese thickly, be generous with fillings
- add mayonnaise to fillings such as tuna or boiled egg
- make up little pots of nuts to snack on regularly during the day
- eat pasteurised cheese
- eat fresh and dried fruit
- eat crackers and biscuits, full of carbohydrate
- eat yoghurts and fromage frais
- casseroles and soups are good for those experiencing pain while chewing or swallowing
- add noodles to soup for extra sustenance
- add full fat cream to sauces
- add lentils and beans to stews or curries
- eat mash potato with added butter, cream and cheese
- Use fortified milk, cream, ice cream, sugar and syrup whenever possible.
Some experts recommend ‘special diets’ that are designed to help treat or cure cancer. There is little evidence to support these theories and some ‘special diets’ can be unpleasant, unhealthy, expensive and boring.
Experts recommend a balanced and enjoyable diet that includes all of the necessary food groups. A balanced diet should include proteins, carbohydrates, fats, minerals, fibre and vitamins. Always consult your GP before making any changes to your diet.
How can a nutritionist help with cancer?
There are pages and pages of nutritional advice available to cancer patients. The sheer volume of conflicting opinions can often be confusing and frustrating. Every individual cancer case is different, with each patient requiring something unique. A nutritionist aims to educate and guide by applying their expert knowledge to your condition.
Living with cancer is exhausting without having to worry about what you can and cannot eat. Consulting a nutritionist could help alleviate some of the stress and pressure of having to monitor your own diet, so you can feel like you are in safe hands. To find a nutritionist near you, use the search option on our homepage.
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