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Cancer - prevention and early detection

Cancer happens when the processes which control how a cell grows and divides don’t work properly.

This means the cell is able to multiply out of control. These cells are damaged, and so don’t behave how a cell usually would. As the cancer develops, the cells can start spreading around the body.

Most cancers are caused by DNA damage that accumulates over a person's lifetime, which is why cancer is more common in older people; three quarters of cases are diagnosed in people aged 60 and over.

Cancers that are directly caused by specific genetic faults inherited from a parent are rare. But we all have subtle variations in our genes that may increase or decrease our risk of cancer by a small amount.

And so cancer risk is neither ‘all in the genes’ nor all down to lifestyle – it’s a combination of the two. While it’s not possible to change our genetic make-up, there are steps that we can all take to reduce the risk of cancer.

Prevented by lifestyle changes

Up to half of all cancers could be prevented by lifestyle changes.

These include:

Giving up smoking – cigarette smoke contains at least 80 cancer-causing chemicals including arsenic, benzene, formaldehyde and radioactive polonium. Smoking doesn’t just cause lung cancer, but over a dozen other types including cancers of the mouth, voice box and gullet

Keeping a healthy bodyweight – this is one of the best ways to reduce the risk of cancer

Eating a healthy balanced diet – this means a diet that’s high in fibre, fruit and vegetables, and low in red and processed meat, saturated fat, and salt

Limiting alcohol – drinking alcohol increases the risk of seven types of cancer, including breast cancer. The more you cut down on alcohol, the more you reduce your risk

Keeping physically active – aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate activity a day, five days a week. Even small bits of physical activity are good for you and can add up over the course of a day

Enjoying the sun safely – we all need some sun to help keep healthy but too much can lead to sunburn and skin cancer. The important thing is not to burn

Doing these things doesn’t mean you definitely won’t develop cancer, but it does go a long way towards stacking the odds in your favour.

For more information, handy tips and to find out about the scientific evidence behind these messages, visit Cancer Research UK’s Healthy Living website.

Early diagnosis of cancer saves lives

When cancer is diagnosed at an early stage, treatment is often simpler and more likely to be successful. So finding cancer early can make a real difference.

Sometimes, people put off seeing their doctor because they’re worried about what the doctor might find. But it’s important to bear in mind that advances in the way cancer is diagnosed and treated have led to real improvements over the years.

There are more than 200 different types of cancer that can cause many different symptoms. Although experts have agreed on some of the most important signs and symptoms to look out for, it’s not possible to know all of them.

That’s why knowing what’s normal for you is important. It means you’re more likely to recognise something different about yourself.

If you notice any unexplained or persistent change, it’s important to get it checked out by your doctor. This is particularly important if you’re over 60, as cancer is more common in this age group.

Don’t be tempted to put something unusual down to ‘getting older’ before you’ve seen a doctor - let them know what you’ve noticed, even if you’re not concerned by it. Chances are it is nothing to worry about, but it’s better to play safe.

And if your symptoms haven’t gone away, or have changed or got worse, go back and tell your doctor about it.

If it is something serious, finding it early and getting treatment started can make a real difference.

Cancer screening

The cancer screening programmes run by the NHS save thousands of lives each year.

In the UK, there are three national screening programmes, for breast, cervical and bowel cancers.  You can read more about the different screening programmes and who is eligible here

The point of cancer screening is to find signs of cancer early, before symptoms have had the chance to develop.

Cancer screening is for people who feel perfectly well – don’t turn down an invitation because you don’t have any symptoms. And even if you’ve been for screening, it’s still important to go to your GP if you notice anything that’s not normal for your body.

Below you can read information about the four most common types of cancer in the UK, and about skin cancer – one of the most rapidly increasing cancers.

Breast cancer

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in the UK, with around 45,000 women a year developing the disease. Men can also develop breast cancer, although it is much rarer.

As with many cancers, breast cancer is more common in older women – 8 in 10 breast cancers are in women aged 50 or over. 

Keeping a healthy weight, cutting back on alcohol and being physically active can all help decrease the risk of breast cancer (as well as other cancer types).  For more information about breast cancer, other risk factors and how to reduce your risk click here.  

Women are encouraged to be ‘breast aware’ and follow the five point code:

  • Know what is normal for you;
  • Look at and feel your breasts;
  • Know what changes to look out for;
  • Report any changes without delay;
  • Go for breast screening if you are 50 or over.

For more information about spotting breast cancer early, click here

Lung cancer

Lung cancer is the second most common cancer in the UK. Anyone can develop lung cancer, but some people have a higher risk than others.

Smoking is linked to around nine out of 10 lung cancers. People with chest problems such as COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), or who have been exposed to radon gas or asbestos also have a higher risk. 

The first symptoms of lung cancer are often:

  • A cough that won’t go away;
  • A cough that changes or gets worse, and/or;
  • Shortness of breath.

Other symptoms include coughing up phlegm with signs of blood in it, repeated chest infections, or a lasting chest or shoulder pain. 

If you have any of these symptoms it’s important to get them checked by a doctor. Some of these symptoms are very common and may not be caused by cancer, but it’s better to play safe.  

If lung cancer is found at an early stage, treatment is more likely to be successful.

For more information about spotting lung cancer early click here .

Bowel cancer

Bowel cancer is the third most common cancer in the UK, with more than 38,000 cases per year.  But it’s largely preventable – around two thirds of cases could be prevented by lifestyle changes. 

You can help decrease the risk of bowel cancer (and others cancers too) by keeping physically active, maintaining a healthy weight, eating a healthy balanced diet and cutting back on alcohol.

For more information about bowel cancer, other risk factors and how to decrease your risk click here.  

If diagnosed at the earliest stage, over nine out of 10 bowel cancer patients will survive their disease for more than five years.

There is a national bowel cancer screening programme which aims to spot bowel cancer earlier.  It’s a good idea to take part in cancer screening when invited.  For more information about the bowel cancer screening programme, including who is eligible, click here

If you notice any of the following symptoms and they last for more than four to six weeks, tell your doctor, even if you’ve taken part in bowel cancer screening:

  • bleeding from the bottom without any obvious reason;
  • a persistent change in bowel habit to looser or more frequent bowel motions;
  • tummy pain, especially if severe, or a lump in your tummy.

For more information about spotting bowel cancer early, click here.

Skin cancer

Skin cancer is very common in the UK, and often first appears as a change in a mole or patch of normal skin. 

The most serious type of skin cancer is called malignant melanoma.  The main cause of malignant melanoma is too much UV exposure, from the sun or sunbeds. 

Anyone can develop skin cancer, but some people are more at risk than others, including those with fair skin, lots of moles or freckles, or a family/personal history of skin cancer. 

Any change in a mole, freckle or normal patch of skin that occurs quickly, over weeks or months, should be taken seriously. 

The best way to reduce the risk of skin cancer is to avoid sunburn.  You can enjoy the sun safely by using shade, clothing and at least SPF 15 sunscreen to protect your skin from sunburn. 

For more information on skin cancer risk factors, other signs to looks out for, and tips for staying safe in the sun, visit the SunSmart website.

Cancer information

For information for anyone affected by cancer, visit CancerHelp UK.

If you would like to talk in confidence about cancer, you can call Cancer Research UK’s cancer information nurses on freephone 0808 8004040.

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