Cancer has become the leading cause of death in Canada. According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, every hour an average of 20 Canadians will be diagnosed with cancer every hour and eight will die of cancer.
Knowing more about cancer can help you avoid developing it or manage your health well if you have cancer.
- What is cancer?
- How serious is cancer?
- What are the signs and symptoms of cancer?
- What are the risk factors for developing cancer?
- What can I do to avoid developing cancer or to manage the disease well?
What is cancer?
Normally when our genes command our cells to grow, function, reproduce and die, our cells obey.
With cancer, some cells don’t. Those cells begin to form lumps (tumours) or travel to other areas of the body.
These cells may be non-cancerous (benign) or cancerous (malignant). Benign tumour cells stay where they are and usually are not life-threatening. Malignant tumour cells can spread (metastasize) and do threaten life.
The locations to which malignant cells spread often depend upon the type of cancer and where it started. The cells can spread by invading surrounding tissues, by entering the bloodstream and travelling along it, and by entering the lymphatic system and travelling along that.
The spread is often characterized in stages from zero to four depending upon how far the cancer has spread.
While cancer can spread anywhere in the body, it’s most likely move to areas such as the lungs, liver, brain or bones.
Cancer generally affects people 50 years of age or older but it can develop in anyone at any age.
How serious is cancer?
There are many types of cancer. Malignant cancers by their nature can lead to death, especially without treatment.
A doctor’s prognosis (best estimate of how the cancer will affect the person) is based on several factors, including:
- The type of cancer and its characteristics
- The person’s medical history
- The stage at which the cancer was diagnosed
- The treatments chosen to deal with the cancer
- The person’s response to the treatments
The doctor will also base the prognosis on survival statistics for that type of cancer. The good news is that many people outlive these statistics, especially if their cancer is found and treated early.
What are the signs and symptoms of cancer?
Because there are so many types of cancer, signs and symptoms of the disease can vary widely depending upon factors such as the cancer’s location, size and effect on the tissues or organs.
Signs and symptoms can also appear in different parts of the body if the cancer has spread.
However, there are some signs and symptoms that may commonly occur, including:
- Thickening or lump (may be felt through the skin)
- Unexplained weight loss
- Fatigue (extreme tiredness that doesn’t go away with rest)
- Skin changes, including sores that do not heal
- White spots on the tongue or white patches inside the mouth
- Trouble swallowing or indigestion
- Changes in bladder or bowel functions
- Long-term cough or hoarseness
- Unusual bleeding or discharge
This is a limited list, and while having any one or more of these or other signs and symptoms does not necessarily mean you have cancer, you should see your doctor if you see any abnormal signs or experience any abnormal symptoms.
What are the risk factors for developing cancer?
Just as there are many types of cancer, there are many risk factors for developing it.
Most cancers seem to be the result of a mix of factors along with the length of exposure to them.
Among the many risk factors are:
- Family history
- Medical history
- Body weight
- Physical activity level
- Tobacco use
- Sun exposure
What can I do to avoid developing cancer or to manage the disease well?
While you can’t change risk factors such as your family history of cancer, there are many steps you can take to reduce your risk of developing cancer, and to help you manage your health well if you do develop it.
- Quitting smoking (smoking is estimated to be responsible for 30% of cancer deaths)
- Avoiding second-hand smoke
- Managing your weight and staying healthier by eating well and exercising regularly (poor habits here are estimated to be responsible for 33% of cancers)
- Reducing your alcohol intake
- Protecting your skin in the sun
- Knowing your body well so you can detect any sign of cancer as early as possible
- Reporting any health changes to your doctor quickly
- Going for cancer screening tests
- Learning more about cancer
Talk with one of our pharmacists or your medical professional for more information.