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Cancer - an overview

Every two minutes someone in the UK is diagnosed with cancer. Cancer is the name given to a group of over 200 related diseases. If you have cancer, some of your cells begin to grow in an uncontrolled way and may spread into other tissues. Cancer can start almost anywhere in your body.

One in two people will get cancer at some point in their lives, more commonly in old age. Although it’s usually a serious condition, many people are cured and more than half live for over ten years. Research is going on all the time to help doctors improve how they diagnose and treat cancer.

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How cancer develops
Cells begin to grow in an uncontrolled way


  • Tumours What are tumours?

    Your body is made up of many different types of cells that form your tissues and organs. These cells normally grow and divide in a controlled way. This is how your body grows and repairs itself. However, cancer cells don't stop dividing – they continue making new cells. They carry on growing in an uncontrolled way and may form lumps called tumours.

    There are two main types of tumour – benign and malignant.

    • Benign tumours aren’t cancerous. They don’t spread to other parts of your body and don’t invade surrounding tissues. Benign tumours usually grow slowly and don’t usually grow back if removed. A benign tumour usually only causes problems if it presses on nearby organs.
    • Malignant tumours are cancerous. They can spread to other parts of your body and invade surrounding tissues. This can cause tumours to develop in other areas of your body, called secondary tumours. This spreading process is called metastasising, and you may hear secondary tumours being referred to as metastatic cancer. Malignant tumours usually grow faster than benign tumours.

    Not all cancer cells form solid tumours. An example is leukaemia – cancer of the blood-forming cells in bone marrow.

  • Types of cancer Types of cancer

    Cancers are named after the types of cells that they develop from and are grouped into the categories below.


    Carcinomas are by far the most common types of cancer. This type of cancer starts off in epithelial cells. These are cells that cover surfaces and line your organs and tissues. Common carcinomas include cancers of the breast, lung, prostate and bowel. Together these four cancers alone make up over half of all new cancers each year, and overall, 85 out of 100 cancers are carcinomas.


    This type of cancer develops from the cells of your connective tissues which support your organs. These include bone, muscle, blood vessels and fat. The two main types are bone sarcomas and soft tissue sarcomas. Sarcomas are rare; fewer than one in 100 diagnosed cancers is this type.

    Leukaemias and lymphomas

    These are cancers of your blood and lymphatic system. In leukaemia your bone marrow makes too many white blood cells, which are abnormal and don’t work properly. Lymphomas are cancers starting in your lymphatic system, which includes your lymph nodes and lymph vessels. These tissues help you fight infections. Only about seven in 100 people diagnosed with cancer have leukaemia or lymphoma. Leukaemias are the most common type of cancers in children.

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  • Symptoms Symptoms of cancer

    The symptoms of cancer can vary widely depending on the specific type you have. There are, however, certain symptoms to look out for.

    • A new lump in any area of your body. For example in women, a lump in your breast, or in men, a lump in your testicle.
    • Any unusual bleeding. For example blood in your urine, vomit or faeces.
    • Coughing up blood. Or a cough that goes on for more than three weeks.
    • A sore that won’t heal. This can be anywhere on your body including your mouth and genitals.
    • Unexplained weight loss.
    • Changes to a mole. Such as bleeding, itching or a change in size or colour.
    • A change in your usual bowel habits. For example constipation or diarrhoea which goes on for more than three weeks.

    These are often caused by other medical conditions which aren’t cancer, but if you have any of these symptoms, contact your GP.

    Remember, you can have early cancer without any symptoms. That’s why it’s important to consider having screening tests if you’re recommended them. Depending on your age and gender these might include tests for cancer of the cervix, breast and bowel. Screening for cancer aims to find them at an early stage when there’s the best chance of a cure.

  • Diagnosis Diagnosis of cancer

    Your GP will ask about your symptoms and examine you. They may also ask about your medical history and about cancer in other members of your family. Your GP may offer you further tests to find out whether your symptoms may be due to cancer or are caused by another condition. These tests may include:

    • blood tests
    • X-rays
    • scans, including magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computerised tomography (CT) and ultrasound

    You may need other tests depending on your symptoms and the area of your body that's affected. For example, your GP may arrange for you to have an examination using an endoscope to look into your stomach or bowel.

    You may also need to have a biopsy taken. A biopsy is a small sample of your tissue. This will be sent to a laboratory for testing to determine the type of cells and whether these are benign (not cancerous) or cancerous.

    If you're found to have cancer, you may need to have other tests to assess whether the cancer has spread. The process of finding out how far a cancer has developed is called staging. This is important because it can help determine what the best course of treatment will be.

  • Treatment Treatment of cancer

    Your treatment will depend on the specific type of cancer you have and if it has spread. You may have treatment to:

    • cure the cancer
    • shrink or slow down the cancer growth to prolong your life
    • reduce the symptoms caused by the cancer – this is called palliative therapy

    Surgery to remove the tumour is a common treatment for cancer but you may also be offered chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Other treatments include hormone therapy (which may help to stop the tumour growing), biological therapies (which target cancer cells), and bone marrow (stem cell) transplants. You may need to have more than one type of treatment.

    Your specialist will discuss these treatments with you and go through your possible choices. They may also ask whether you’d like to take part in a clinical trial to help find out if a new treatment works.

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  • Causes Causes of cancer

    Most cancers are thought to be caused by a combination of risk factors, including the following.

    • Age. Your risk of cancer increases with age. More than one third of newly diagnosed cancers occur in people aged 75 or over.
    • Smoking. This is the main cause of lung cancer and increases your risk of getting bladder, throat and many other cancers.
    • Family history. You may be more likely to get some types of cancer if your family members have had them. This is because you can inherit genes that make cancer more likely to develop. Speak to your GP about whether you should have any additional screening tests.
    • Food and drink. A diet high in animal fats, red and processed meat but low in fruit and vegetables can increase your risk of getting certain types of cancer. If you drink excessive amounts of alcohol or are overweight, it can also increase your risk.
    • Being inactive. If you aren’t physically active you have a higher risk of some types of cancer including breast and bowel cancer.
    • Sun exposure. Ultraviolet (UV) rays can increase your risk of getting certain cancers. Prolonged exposure to the sun, or using a sun bed often, is known to cause skin cancer, including melanoma.
    • Infections. Certain infections can increase your risk. For example, a virus called human papilloma virus (HPV) can increase your risk of getting cervical cancer.
    • Cancer-causing substances. Exposure to certain substances that are known to cause cancer (carcinogens), such as asbestos and radioactive materials, can increase your risk.

    It’s thought that about half of all cancers are preventable. You can reduce your risk of getting cancer by making healthy lifestyle changes.

    Cancer isn't infectious and you can't catch it from other people.

  • Help and support Help and support

    Being diagnosed with cancer can be distressing for you and your family. An important part of cancer treatment is support to deal with the emotional aspects as well as the physical symptoms.

    You may find comfort from talking about your cancer with family or friends, or with others going through similar experiences. You may wish to speak with a counsellor to help you deal with your diagnosis. And specialist cancer doctors and nurses are experts in providing the support you need so do ask for help if you need it. If you have more advanced cancer, further support may be available to you from your local hospice.

    Remember – there is a lot of support available for people with cancer. See our resources section below for contact details of organisations that can help.

  • What are the most common types? What are the most common types of cancer in the UK?


    The most common cancer in the UK is breast cancer, followed by lung, prostate and bowel cancer. Over half of all people who are newly diagnosed with cancer have one of these types.

    More information

    Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in the UK, even though it’s rare in men. In 2011, over 50,000 people were diagnosed with the disease. Breast cancer is very strongly related to age – eight out of 10 women diagnosed are over 50.

    Lung cancer is the second most common cancer in the UK and over 43,000 people were diagnosed in 2011. Smoking causes nine out of 10 deaths from lung cancer so it's very important to try to give up if you smoke, whatever your age.

    Nearly 42,000 men were diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2011, which makes it the third most common type of cancer in the UK. It’s the most common type of cancer in men and just over one third of men diagnosed are aged over 75.

    The fourth most common type of cancer in the UK is bowel cancer – over 41,000 people were diagnosed in 2011. Like breast cancer, bowel cancer is very strongly related to age. More than nine in 10 people who are diagnosed are 50 years or older.

  • How do I support my friend? How do I support my friend who has cancer?


    It can be very upsetting if someone you know has been diagnosed with cancer, but there are lots of things you can do to help.

    More information

    If a friend has cancer, it can be a very difficult time for both of you. It's important that you spend time with your friend so they don’t feel alone. Talking to your friend will help you to understand better how they are feeling and coping with the illness. Be realistic about how much time you can spend with your friend. Try to be reliable, too, so they know how much they can depend on you.

    You may find it hard to talk to your friend at first, as they may act as if everything is normal. If your friend doesn't feel ready to talk, carry on with life as normal but offer your support. Look for information about the type of cancer your friend has to help you understand what they are going through. But remember it can be different for different people. Respect your friend’s privacy if they don’t want to talk about their cancer to you or to other people. Just being there and continuing to stay in touch and talking about normal things can be a support. Many people like to try and keep their lives as normal as possible even when they are having treatment for cancer.

    It’s important to check that your friend actually wants your help. Try to think about specific practical ways you can help rather than just asking if there is anything you can do. Perhaps offer to cook a meal, pick up the children from school or do some shopping. You could also offer to accompany your friend to doctors’ appointments or treatment sessions. Be sensitive if your friend doesn’t want support – let them know the offer is still available if things change later.

    It's important that you remember to take time out for yourself, as supporting somebody with cancer can be stressful and upsetting. Talk to other people about how you're feeling and make sure others are involved with caring too. There are many support groups that offer help and advice for friends and family of people with cancer. See our Resources section for useful contact details.

  • Can cancer be cured? Can cancer be cured?


    Many people can be cured of cancer, but it depends on a number of things. These include the type of cancer you have, how early it’s diagnosed and how well you respond to treatment.

    More information

    Different cancers respond to different treatments so there isn’t going to be one treatment that will be ‘a cure for cancer’. There are over 200 different types of cancer and some are easier to cure than others. For instance, three out of four children with cancer are cured these days. If you have cancer of the testicle, or a type of cancer called Hodgkin’s lymphoma, there is a very good chance of cure. And most skin cancers are cured with surgery.

    For most cancers, if you’re diagnosed at an early stage there’s a better chance of you being cured. That’s why you should see your GP as soon as possible to let them know your concerns, if you have a symptom you’re worried about.

    If you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, ask your doctor what kind of treatment you’ll have and what the chances of a cure are. If your cancer can’t be cured, treatments may be able to shrink the tumour or slow down its growth. They may be able to help reduce your symptoms and prolong your life.

    There’s always a large amount of research going on into developing new cancer treatments. Researchers are developing new medicines all the time and you may be asked to take part in clinical trials to test these. Ask your doctor for more information.

  • Can vitamin D protect against cancer? Can vitamin D protect against cancer?


    Vitamin D is well known to be important for bone health. At the moment doctors aren’t sure whether vitamin D protects against cancer or not because the research studies don’t all agree.


    Research scientists have looked for a link between cancer and getting enough vitamin D, or taking vitamin D supplements. Some studies suggest vitamin D may help to reduce your risk of developing some cancers, including bowel cancer. However, other studies disagree. More research needs to be done before we can be certain whether vitamin D protects against cancer.

    Vitamin D is produced naturally by your body when your skin is exposed to sunlight. You can also get it from some foods, such as oily fish. You’ll probably get enough vitamin D during the summer by just going about your daily life as normal, spending frequent short spells in the sun. Don’t let your skin redden – it’s not a good idea to deliberately sunbathe without sunscreen to try and produce vitamin D.

  • Resources Resources

    Further information


    • Kumar P, Clark M. Clinical medicine. 8th ed. Edinburgh: Saunders; 2012
    • Cancer diagnosis. The Merck Manuals., published July 2013
    • Oncology and palliative care. Oxford handbook of clinical medicine (online). Oxford Medicine Online., published Jan 2014 (online version)
    • Aetiology and epidemiology. Oxford handbook of oncology (online). Oxford Medicine Online., published June 2011 (online version)
    • About cancer. Cancer Research UK., published 13 April 2015
    • Cancer statistics: key stats. All cancers combined. Cancer Research UK., published February 2015
    • CancerStats. Cancer Research UK., published 14 January 2014
    • What is cancer? National Cancer Institute., published 9 February 2015
    • Vitamin D and cancer prevention. National Cancer Institute., published 21 October 2013
    • What is cancer?, published 1 August 2012
    • Navigating cancer care., accessed 14 April 2015
    • Cancer basics. American Cancer Society., reviewed 11 August 2014
    • What is cancer? Macmillan., reviewed 30 October 2014
    • Talking about cancer. Macmillan., published 31 July 2012
    • Ahmad AS, Ormiston-Smith N, Sasieri PD. Trends in the lifetime risk of developing cancer in Great Britain: comparison of risk for those born from 1930 to 1960. British Journal of Cancer 2015; 112:943–47. doi:10.1038/bjc.2014.606
    • Bjelakovic G, Gluud LL, Nikolova D, et al. Vitamin D supplementation for prevention of cancer in adults. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2014, Issue 6. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD007469.pub2
    • Consensus vitamin D position statement. British Association of Dermatologists, Cancer Research UK, Diabetes UK, the Multiple Sclerosis Society, the National Heart Forum, the National Osteoporosis Society and the Primary Care Dermatology Society., December 2010
    • Vitamin D and cancer. World Health Organisation, International Agency for Research on Cancer., November 2008
    • Vitamin D: information for healthcare professionals. Public Health England., December 2014
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