What You Need To Know About Cancer

This article starts below.

Who gets cancer?

Anyone can get cancer at any age; however, most cancers are diagnosed in people who are 45 years old and above.

What are the risk factors for cancer?

A risk factor is anything that increases a person's chance of getting a disease. Risk factors for cancer can include:

  • Age
  • Sex
  • Use of certain medicines such as DES (a synthetic estrogen)
  • Polluted air and water
  • Family medical history
  • Environmental factors (such as exposure to a variety of chemicals such as asbestos, benzenes, polyvinyl chloride, wood dust, some ingredients of cigarette smoke, and radiation)
  • Lifestyle choices (such as use of cigarettes, tobacco and cigars; alcohol use, high-fat diet and sun exposure)

Having one or more risk factors does not necessarily mean that a person will get cancer. Some people with one or more risk factors never develop the disease, while others who develop cancer have no apparent risk factors. Even when a person who has a risk factor is diagnosed with cancer, there is no way to prove that the risk factor actually caused the cancer.

Can cancer be prevented?

Yes, if you adopt the following lifestyle:

  • Do not smoke, use tobacco products or inhale second hand smoke.
  • Limit your exposure to known carcinogens such as asbestos, radon and other workplace chemicals as well as pesticides and herbicides. Have x-rays only when necessary.
  • Limit your exposure to the sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays, sun lamps and tanning booths. Protect your skin from the sun's UV rays wit sunscreen (applied frequently and containing a sun protection factor of 15 or higher) and protective clothing (sun hats, long sleeves, etc.).
  • Reduce stress. Emotional stress may weaken the immune system that is relied on to fight off stray cancer cells.
  • Adopt a healthy active lifestyle, and eat a healthy well-balanced diet.

How are signs and symptoms helpful?

Signs and symptoms, if not ignored, can lead to early detection and treatment of cancer. Finding cancer early usually means it can be treated while it is still small and is less likely to have spread to other parts of the body. Usually, this means a better chance for a cure, especially if initial treatment is surgery. Cancers which lend themselves to early detection include breast cancer, colon cancer, and cervical cancer.

The symptoms should not be discounted or overlooked, especially if they have been present for a period of time, or are getting worse.

General cancer signs and symptoms

The general (nonspecific) signs and symptoms of cancer include:

  • Unexplained weight loss: An unexplained (unintentional) weight loss of about 10 pounds may be the first sign of cancer, particularly cancers of the pancreas, stomach, esophagus, or lung.
  • Fever: Almost all patients with cancer will have fever at some time, particularly if the cancer or its treatment affects the immune system and reduces resistance to infection. Less often, fever may be an early sign of cancer, such as with Hodgkin's disease.
  • Fatigue: Fatigue may be a significant symptom as the cancer progresses. It may occur early, however, especially if the cancer is causing a chronic loss of blood, as in some stomach cancer or colon cancer.
  • Pain: Pain may be an early sign with some cancers, such as bone cancer or testicular cancer. Most often, however, pain is a symptom of advanced disease.
  • Skin changes: In addition to cancers of the skin, some internal cancers can produce visible skin signs such as darkening (hyperpigmentation), yellowing (jaundice), reddening (erythema), itching, or excessive hair growth.

What are signs and symptoms?

A symptom is an indication of disease, illness, or injury that is felt or noticed by a person, but may not easily be noticed by anyone else. For example, chills, weakness, shortness of breath and cough are possible symptoms of pneumonia.

A sign is an observation made by a doctor, nurse or other health care professional. Fever, rapid breathing rate and abnormal breath sounds heard through a stethoscope are possible signs of pneumonia.

In many cases, a patient's signs and symptoms do not provide enough clues to determine the cause of illness and medical tests, such as x-rays, blood tests or a biopsy, are needed.

How does cancer produce signs and symptoms?

Cancer is a group of diseases that may cause any sign or symptom, the signs and symptoms will depend on the size of the cancer, where the cancer is, and how much it affects the surrounding organs or structures. If a cancer spreads (metastasizes), the symptoms may appear in different parts of the body. An example is breast cancer.

As a cancer grows, it begins to push on nearby organs, blood vessels and nerves. This pressure creates some of the signs and symptoms of cancer. If the cancer is in a critical area such as certain parts of the brain, even the smallest tumor can produce early symptoms.

Sometimes, however, cancers form in places where symptoms may not be produced until the cancer has grown quite large. Colon cancer behaves this way. Some pancreatic cancers do not produce symptoms until they begin to grow around nearby nerves, causing a backache. Other cancers grow around the bile duct, leading to a yellowing of the skin known as jaundice. Unfortunately, by the time a pancreatic cancer causes these signs and symptoms, it has usually reached an advanced stage.

Specific cancer signs and symptoms

In addition to the general symptoms, you should be watchful for the following common symptoms, which could be an indication of cancer. Again, there may be other causes for each of these, but it is important to bring them to your doctor's attention as soon as possible so that they can be investigated.

  • Change in bowel habits or bladder function: Chronic constipation, diarrhea, or a change in the size of the stool may indicate colon cancer. Pain with urination, blood in the urine, or a change in bladder function (such as more frequent or less frequent urination) could be related to bladder or prostate cancer. Any changes in bladder or bowel function should be reported to your doctor.
  • Sores that do not heal: Skin cancers may bleed and resemble sores that do not heal. A persistent sore in the mouth could be an oral cancer and should be dealt with promptly, especially in patients who smoke, chew tobacco, or frequently drink alcohol. Sores on the penis or vagina may either be signs of infection or an early cancer, and should not be overlooked in either case.
  • Unusual bleeding or discharge: Unusual bleeding can occur in early or advanced cancer. Blood in the sputum (phlegm) may be a sign of lung cancer. Blood on the stool (or a dark or black stool) could be a sign of colon cancer. Cancer of the cervix or the endometrium (lining of the uterus) can cause vaginal bleeding. Blood in the urine is a sign of possible bladder or kidney cancer. A bloody discharge from the nipple may be a sign of breast cancer.
  • Thickening or lump in breast or other parts of the body: Many cancers can be felt through the skin, particularly in the breast, testicle, lymph nodes, and the soft tissues of the body. A lump or thickening may be an early or late stage of cancer.
  • Indigestion or difficulty swallowing: While they commonly have other causes, these symptoms may indicate cancer of the esophagus, stomach, or pharynx (throat).
  • Recent change in a wart or mole: Any change in color or shape, loss of definite borders, or an increase in size, may be a melanoma, which, if diagnosed early, can be treated successfully.
  • Nagging cough or hoarseness: A cough that does not go away may be a sign of lung cancer. Hoarseness can be a sign of cancer of the larynx (voice box) or thyroid.

Excerpt from: What you need to know about cancer, a cancer awareness campaign from Biomedis Oncology