World Cancer Day: What is cancer, what are the signs – and how much does age make a difference?


Around 1,000 people in the UK are to be told they have cancer today and the diagnoses are expected to continue at the same rate until at least the end of next year, according to a charity.

The NHS will be pushed to the limit as around 331,000 people each year were diagnosed with the disease in 2011 and the number is expected to rise – causing treatment waiting times to at least double, Macmillan Cancer Support has warned.

Half of the nation’s population is expected to be diagnosed with some form of cancer – according to Cancer Research UK – and the rising number is attributed to people living longer as two thirds of people with the disease are aged over 65.

Men are slightly more likely to get cancer than women. Each year in the UK, about 167,480 men and 164,000 women are diagnosed with some form of cancer.

What is cancer?

Cancer is when abnormal cells divide in an uncontrolled way. Some cancers may eventually spread into other tissues. There are more than 200 different types of cancer.

What is lifetime risk?

Lifetime risk is a calculation of the likelihood of someone being diagnosed with cancer at some point during their life. It is often presented as a proportion – such as one in two – or a percentage. For every two people born today, it is expected that one could be diagnosed with cancer, however a large range of genetic and lifestyle factors mean the risk for each person is different.

Has there been a sudden jump in lifetime risk?

No. The latest figure is based on a new calculation method so should not be compared to previous figures – of one in three – which Cancer Research UK say underestimated lifetime cancer risk.

What is the reason for the rise?

The main reason that lifetime cancer risk is increasing is because people are living longer. As more of us are living into old age, more people are being diagnosed with the disease.

Smoking increases the risk of respiratory and mouth cancers

Smoking increases the risk of respiratory and mouth cancers

Why is age a big risk factor?

Cancer is a disease of genes. Over time, mistakes accumulate in DNA code and these can kickstart a cell’s journey towards becoming cancerous. The longer we live, the more time we have for these mistakes to build up.

Are changes in lifestyle also a reason for the rise in risk?

Yes. Diets high in red and processed meats have contributed to the rise in bowel cancer. Obesity increases the risk of developing a number of cancers. Sunbathing and sunbeds contribute to the rising rates of skin cancer.

What treatments are available for cancer?

Treatments include surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, biological therapies, bisphosphonates and bone marrow and stem cell transplants.

What are the signs of cancer for both men and women?

Unusual lumps or swelling anywhere on the body, changes in appearance of a mole, ulcers lasting longer than three weeks, a persistent cough or croaky voice lasting longer than three weeks, blood in urine or faeces, unexplained weight loss or heavy night sweats.

Breast cancer or cervical cancer signs include an unusual breast change, bleeding from the vagina after the menopause or between periods, and persistent bloating.

Can cancer be prevented?

Experts estimate that more than four in 10 cancer cases could be prevented by lifestyle changes, such as: not smoking, keeping a healthy body weight, cutting back on alcohol, eating a healthy balanced diet, keeping active, avoiding certain infections (like HPV), avoidance of radiation and some chemicals and staying safe in the sun.

Breast cancer could be detected early through self-examination and smear tests can spot abnormal cells that could lead to cervical cancer.

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