Cancer is a condition where cells in a specific part of the body grow and reproduce uncontrollably. The cancerous cells can invade and destroy surrounding healthy tissue, including organs.
Cancer sometimes begins in one part of the body before spreading to other areas. This process is known as metastasis. There are over 200 different types of cancer, each with its own methods of diagnosis and treatment.
Changes to your body's normal processes or symptoms that are out of the ordinary can sometimes be an early sign of cancer. For example, a lump that suddenly appears on your body, unexplained bleeding or changes to your bowel habits are all symptoms that need to be checked by a doctor.
In many cases, your symptoms are not related to cancer and are caused by other, non-cancerous health conditions. However, it is still important that you visit your GP so your symptoms can be investigated.
More than 1 in 3 people will develop some form of cancer during their lifetime. In the UK, the 4 most common types of cancer are:
Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in the UK. Most women diagnosed with breast cancer are over 50, but younger women can also get breast cancer.
About one in eight women are diagnosed with breast cancer during their lifetime. There's a good chance of recovery if it's detected in its early stages.
For this reason, it's vital that women check their breasts regularly for any changes and always get any changes examined by their GP.
Symptoms of Breast cancer
Breast cancer can have a number of symptoms, but the first noticeable symptom is usually a lump or area of thickened breast tissue.
Most breast lumps aren't cancerous, but it's always best to have them checked by your doctor.
You should also see your GP if you notice any of the following:
- A change in the size or shape of one or both breasts
- discharge from either of your nipples, which may be streaked with blood
- a lump or swelling in either of your armpits
- dimpling on the skin of your breasts
- a rash on or around your nipple
- a change in the appearance of your nipple, such as becoming sunken into your breast
- Breast pain isn't usually a symptom of breast cancer.
Breast cancer screening
Mammographic screening, where X-ray images of the breast are taken, is the most commonly available method of detecting an early breast lesion.
However, you should be aware that a mammogram might fail to detect some breast cancers.
It might also increase your chances of having extra tests and interventions, including surgery, even if you're not affected by breast cancer.
Women with a higher-than-average risk of developing breast cancer may be offered screening and genetic testing for the condition.
As the risk of breast cancer increases with age, all women who are 50 to 70 years old are invited for breast cancer screening every three years.
Women over the age of 70 are also entitled to screening and can arrange an appointment through their GP or local screening unit.
The NHS is in the process of extending the programme as a trial, offering screening to some women aged 47 to 73.
Find breast cancer screening services near you on the NHS website (opens in a new window): https://www.nhs.uk/Service-Search/Breast-cancer-screening/LocationSearch/224
Lung cancer is one of the most common and serious types of cancer. Around 44,500 people are diagnosed with the condition every year in the UK.
There are usually no signs or symptoms in the early stages of lung cancer, but many people with the condition eventually develop symptoms including:
- a persistent cough
- coughing up blood
- persistent breathlessness
- unexplained tiredness and weight loss
- an ache or pain when breathing or coughing
- You should see your GP if you have these symptoms.
Lung cancer doesn't usually cause noticeable symptoms until it's spread through the lungs or into other parts of the body. This means the outlook for the condition isn't as good as many other types of cancer.
Overall, about 1 in 3 people with the condition live for at least a year after they're diagnosed and about 1 in 20 people live at least 10 years.
However, survival rates can vary widely, depending on how far the cancer has spread at the time of diagnosis. Early diagnosis can make a big difference.
Causes of lung cancer
Most cases of lung cancer are caused by smoking, although people who have never smoked can also develop the condition.
If you smoke, the best way to prevent lung cancer and other serious conditions is to stop smoking as soon as possible.
However long you have been smoking, it's always worth quitting. Every year you don't smoke decreases your risk of getting serious illnesses, such as lung cancer. After 10 years of not smoking, your chances of developing lung cancer falls to half that of someone who smokes.
NHS Smoke free can offer advice and encouragement to help you quit smoking. You can call them on 0300 123 1044, or visit their website.
Your GP or pharmacist can also give you help and advice about giving up smoking.
Research suggests that eating a low-fat, high-fibre diet, including at least five portions a day of fresh fruit and vegetables and plenty of whole grains, can reduce your risk of lung cancer, as well as other types of cancer and heart disease.
For further information visit the NHS website (opens in a new window): https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/
There's strong evidence to suggest that regular exercise can lower the risk of developing lung cancer and other types of cancer.
Adults should do at least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week.
For further information visit the NHS website (opens in a new window): https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/exercise/free-fitness-ideas/
Prostate cancer is the most common cancer in men in the UK. It usually develops slowly, so there may be no signs for many years.
Symptoms of prostate cancer do not usually appear until the prostate is large enough to affect the tube that carries urine from the bladder out of the penis (urethra).
What is the prostate?
The prostate is a small gland in the pelvis, found only in men. About the size of a satsuma, it's located between the penis and the bladder, and surrounds the urethra.
The main function of the prostate is to produce a thick white fluid that creates semen when mixed with the sperm produced by the testicles.
Why does prostate cancer happen?
The causes of prostate cancer are largely unknown. However, certain things can increase your risk of developing the condition.
The chances of developing prostate cancer increase as you get older. Most cases develop in men aged 50 or older.
For reasons not yet understood, prostate cancer is more common in men of African-Caribbean or African descent, and less common in Asian men.
Men whose father or brother were affected by prostate cancer are at slightly increased risk themselves.
Recent research also suggests that obesity increases the risk of prostate cancer.
Prostate cancer does not usually cause any symptoms until the cancer has grown large enough to put pressure on the tube that carries urine from the bladder out of the penis (urethra).
- needing to pee more frequently, often during the night
- needing to rush to the toilet
- difficulty in starting to pee (hesitancy)
- straining or taking a long time while peeing
- weak flow
- feeling that your bladder has not emptied fully
- blood in urine or blood in semen
These symptoms do not always mean you have prostate cancer. Many men's prostates get larger as they get older because of a non-cancerous condition called prostate enlargement.
For further information visit the Prostate Cancer UK website (opens in a new window): https://prostatecanceruk.org/prostate-information/about-prostate-cancer
Bowel cancer is a general term for cancer that begins in the large bowel. Depending on where the cancer starts, bowel cancer is sometimes called colon or rectal cancer.
Bowel cancer is one of the most common types of cancer diagnosed in the UK. Most people diagnosed with it are over the age of 60.
Symptoms of bowel cancer
The three main symptoms of bowel cancer are:
- persistent blood in the stools – that occurs for no obvious reason or is associated with a change in bowel habit
- a persistent change in your bowel habit – which usually means going more often, with looser stools
- persistent lower abdominal (tummy) pain, bloating or discomfort – that's always caused by eating and may be associated with loss of appetite or significant unintentional weight loss
Most people with these symptoms do not have bowel cancer. Other health problems can cause similar symptoms. For example:
- blood in the stools when associated with pain or soreness is more often caused by piles (haemorrhoids)
- a change in bowel habit or abdominal pain is usually the result of something you've eaten
- a change in bowel habit to going less often, with harder stools, is not usually caused by any serious condition – it may be worth trying laxatives before seeing your GP
- These symptoms should be taken more seriously as you get older and when they persist despite simple treatments.
Some people also have an increased risk of bowel cancer because they have another condition, such as extensive ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease in the colon for more than 10 years.
Although there are some risks you can't change, such as your family history or your age, there are several ways you can lower your chances of developing the condition.
- Red meat and bowel cancer risk
- Eating good food and a healthy diet
- Losing weight
- Health and fitness
- Stopping smoking
- Cutting down on alcohol
Bowel cancer screening
To detect cases of bowel cancer sooner, the NHS offers two types of bowel cancer screening to adults registered with a GP in England:
- All men and women aged 60 to 74 are invited to carry out a faecal occult blood (FOB) test. Every two years, they're sent a home test kit, which is used to collect a stool sample. If you're 75 or over, you can ask for this test by calling the freephone helpline on 0800 707 60 60.
- An additional one-off test called bowel scope screening is gradually being introduced in England. This is offered to men and women at the age of 55. It involves a doctor or nurse using a thin, flexible instrument to look inside the lower part of the bowel.
Taking part in bowel cancer screening reduces your chances of dying from bowel cancer. Removing any polyps found in bowel scope screening can prevent cancer.
However, all screening involves a balance of potential harms, as well as benefits. It's up to you to decide if you want to have it.
To help you decide, read our pages on bowel cancer screening, which explain what the two tests involve, what the different possible results mean, and the potential risks for you to weigh up.
For further information visit the NHS website (opens in a new window): https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/bowel-cancer-screening/
Cervical cancer develops in a woman's cervix (the entrance to the womb from the vagina). It mainly affects sexually active women aged between 30 and 45.
Symptoms of cervical cancer
Cancer of the cervix often has no symptoms in its early stages. If you do have symptoms, the most common is abnormal vaginal bleeding, which can occur during or after sex, in between periods, or new bleeding after you have been through the menopause.
Abnormal bleeding doesn't mean you have cervical cancer, but you should see your GP as soon as possible to get it checked out.
If your GP thinks you might have cervical cancer, you should be referred to see a specialist within 2 weeks.
Screening for cervical cancer
The best way to protect yourself from cervical cancer is by attending cervical screening (previously known as a "smear test") when invited.
The NHS Cervical Screening Programme invites all women from the age of 25 to 64 to attend cervical screening. Women aged 25 to 49 are offered screening every 3 years and those aged 50 to 64 are offered screening every 5 years.
During cervical screening, a small sample of cells is taken from the cervix and checked under a microscope for abnormalities. In some areas, the screening sample is first checked for human papilloma virus (HPV), the virus that can cause abnormal cells.
An abnormal cervical screening test result does not mean you definitely have cancer. Most abnormal results are due to signs of HPV, the presence of treatable precancerous cells, or both, rather than cancer itself.
You should be sent a letter confirming when it's time for your screening appointment. Contact your GP if you think you may be overdue.
For further information on cervical screening visit the NHS website (opens in a new window): https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/cervical-screening/