“What is cancer?”
Cancer is a disease of the body’s cells, the microscopic building blocks which make up the human body. Normally cells grow and divide in an orderly way. Occasionally, however, some cells reproduce themselves in an uncontrolled way and these abnormal cells may grow into a lump called a tumour.
“What causes cancer?”
The causes of cancer are complex, and there is a lot of confusing information about what causes cancer. Because there are over 200 different types of cancer, we know that there is no single cause. It is important to know that not all available information about the causes of cancer are based on research. Things like deodorants, power lines, stress, mobile phones, artificial sweeteners and preservatives have not been proven to cause cancer.
So, what does cause cancer?
Over time a cell can become damaged from the environment around it. Research shows that if a cell becomes damaged, there is an increased chance of cancer developing. Lifestyle and environmental factors that can damage cells include:
- Smoking tobacco
- Drinking alcohol
- Not being physically active
- Eating an unhealthy diet
- Being overweight or obese
- Damage from the sun’s ultraviolet rays, and
- Damage from some viruses like Human papilloma-virus and Hepatitis B.
The amount of damage that a cell can handle before it becomes cancerous will be different for different people, and people with a family history of some cancers may have an increased risk of developing cancer.
“Is cancer contagious?”
Cancer is not contagious. You can’t catch cancer directly from someone who has the disease.
It is possible to catch a virus, such as human papilloma-virus or hepatitis, which can increase your risk of developing cancer.
“What are the early symptoms of cancer?”
The most urgent symptoms are coughing up blood or blood in your poo or pee. If you notice one of these symptoms, even just once, tell your doctor.
Other symptoms that may be serious if they go on for more than 4 weeks include:
- Problems peeing,
- Runny poo,
- Unexplained weight loss,
- An unusual pain, lump or swelling anywhere in your body,
- Becoming more short of breath,
- A persistent cough, or
- A new or changed spot on your skin.
If you notice any of these, or anything unusual for your body tell your doctor straight away. It might just save your life.
“How do I know if I have cancer?”
The only way to know for sure whether you have cancer is to see a doctor. Don’t put off visiting your doctor, clinic nurse or health worker if you have any concerns about possible cancer symptoms. Make it a priority to get checked out, so you know for sure whether there’s anything to worry about.
“What is cancer screening?”
Population cancer screening such as the National Cervical Screening Program, BreastScreen Australia (mammograms) and the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program (home bowel cancer screening kits), are excellent methods for detecting early cancer in people who are not currently experiencing any symptoms. Cancer Council Tasmania encourages people to participate in all cancer screenings that they are eligible for, each time that they are eligible.
It is important to note that cancer screening does not replace the need to be aware of early cancer symptoms and changes to your body. Likewise, a recent or upcoming screening test does not override the need to discuss any unusual symptoms with your doctor.
It is a common misconception that people who feel well do not need to participate in screening.
“Who should have cancer screening?”
Adults aged 50-74 years, with no bowel symptoms, are eligible to participate in the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program every two years, and will receive a bowel cancer screening kit in the post each time they are eligible.
BreastScreen Tasmania provides free screening mammograms to women who have no breast symptoms. Women over the age of 40 years are eligible for screening mammograms, however women between the age of 50 and 74 years are particularly encouraged to participate and will receive an invitation.
Women aged 25 will receive a letter inviting them to participate in the National Cervical Screening Program. It is recommended that women with no symptoms continue to screen every 5 years until the age of 74. If you are eligible to participate please book an appointment with your doctor.
“I have noticed a possible cancer symptom, should I just wait for my next screening test?”
Waiting for a screening test could potentially delay your diagnosis and treatment, and may impact your outcome. If you have a suspected symptom you should go visit your doctor without delay.
“I had a screening test that came back clear and now I have a possible cancer symptom. What should I do?”
If you have a cancer symptom it is important to tell your doctor. You may have developed a cancer that the screening test missed or has developed after screening.
“If I’m fit and healthy, do I need to still look out for cancer symptoms?”
All men and women are at risk of getting cancer, so it’s important to know the common symptoms of cancer so you can get it diagnosed and treated early.
“I’m participating in screening tests regularly, should I still look out for cancer symptoms?”
Yes, it is important to still look out for cancer symptoms. Participating in cancer screening tests regularly reduces your risk of dying from cancer, but no screening test is 100% accurate.
“If I go for annual/regular skin checks with my doctor, do I need to still keep a look out for skin cancer symptoms?”
Yes! Skin cancers can appear at any time and some can grow quickly. If you wait until your next visit with the doctor, you could be giving a new skin cancer time to grow. It makes a lot of sense to get to know your skin and check yourself three or four times a year, change of season is a great reminder. If you do notice a change in your skin, book an appointment to visit your doctor. The earlier a skin cancer is found, the more easily it can be treated.
Here is a handy guide on what you should look for.
“Should I get a second opinion about cancer symptoms?”
If you have attended an appointment to discuss a potential cancer symptom with a doctor and you’re not satisfied with their advice, you can see another doctor. For some regional people, this means traveling to the next town, though if you have a ‘gut feeling’ that something isn’t right, it’s important to go the distance and have your concerns investigated early.