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.
Spotting signs of cancer
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 will not be related to cancer and will be caused by other, non-cancerous health conditions. However, it is still important that you see your GP so your symptoms can be investigated.
Reducing your risk
Making some simple changes to your lifestyle can significantly reduce your risk of developing cancer. For example, healthy eating, taking regular exercise and not smoking will all help lower your risk.
Leading a healthy lifestyle can help lower your risk of developing certain cancers. You can do this by:
- eating a healthy balanced diet
- maintaining a healthy weight
- drinking less alcohol
- stopping smoking
- protecting your skin from sun damage
Eating a healthy balanced diet
Stories about various foods and diets linked to preventing cancer are often in the news. This is because a lot of research is going on into diet and cancer. But it isn't easy to study the link between diet and cancer because there are so many different factors involved, and cancer can take years to develop.
No single food or supplement can prevent cancer from developing. Overall, research shows a link between eating certain groups of foods (rather than any specific foods, vitamins or nutrients) and a reduction in cancer risk.
Eating a healthy balanced diet may lower your risk of developing cancer. A healthy balanced diet contains:
- plenty of fruit and vegetables: try to eat at least five portions a day
- plenty of bread, rice, potatoes, pasta and other starchy foods: choose wholegrain foods where possible as these contain more fibre
- some meat, fish, eggs, beans and other non-dairy sources of protein
- some milk and dairy foods
- just a small amount of foods and drinks high in fat or sugars, such as cakes, crisps and biscuits
Eating a healthy balanced diet will help make sure your body gets all the nutrients it needs.
Evidence consistently suggests that eating plenty of fibre can reduce the risk of bowel cancer. Diets high in fibre can help keep your bowel healthy and prevent constipation.
Fibre-rich foods include wholegrain pasta, bread, breakfast cereals and rice. Pulses, fruit and vegetables are also good sources of fibre.
Red and processed meat
Meat is a good source of protein, vitamins and minerals, such as iron and zinc. But evidence shows that there is probably a link between eating red and processed meat, and the risk of bowel cancer. People who eat a lot of these meats have a higher risk of getting bowel cancer than people who eat small amounts.
Beef, pork and lamb are all red meat. Processed meats include bacon, sausages, salami and ham.
If you eat more than 90 grams of red or processed meat a day (the equivalent of about three thin-cut slices of roast beef, lamb or pork, where each slice is about the size of half a piece of sliced bread), it is recommended that you cut down to 70 grams. You can find out more about eating red and processed meat.
Beta-carotene, often found in antioxidant supplements, has been found to increase the risk of lung cancer developing in smokers and people who have been heavily exposed to asbestos at work. It is possible that taking large amounts of beta-carotene supplements would also increase the risk of cancer in other people.
Maintaining a healthy weight
Being overweight or obese can increase your risk of some cancers, such as:
- bowel cancer
- pancreatic cancer
- oesophageal cancer
- breast cancer if you are a woman who has been through the menopause
- cancer of the womb (uterus)
- kidney cancer
Being a healthy weight can reduce your risk of developing cancer. You can find out whether you are a healthy weight by using the Calico BMI healthy weight calculator in your health profile.
Drinking less alcohol
Drinking alcohol is known to increase your risk of some cancers, including:
- mouth cancer
- pharynx and larynx cancer
- oesophageal cancer
- colorectal cancer in men
- breast cancer
It is probably a cause of other cancers such as colorectal cancer in women and liver cancer. Women shouldn't regularly drink more than 2-3 units of alcohol a day, and men shouldn't regularly drink more than 3-4 units a day. "Regularly" means every day or on most days of the week. Use the alcohol unit calculator to find out how many units are in different alcoholic drinks.
Lung cancer is responsible for around a quarter of cancer deaths in the UK, and 90% of lung cancer cases are related to smoking. "Stopping smoking greatly cuts the risk of developing cancer," says Hazel Nunn, Cancer Research UK's health information officer. "The earlier you stop, the greater the impact. But it's never too late to quit. People who quit smoking at 30 live nearly as long as non-smokers, and those who quit at 50 can still undo half the damage."
Protect your skin from sun damage
Taking care in the sun so that you don't get burned is important for preventing skin cancer. Follow Cancer Research UK's SunSmart plan to protect yourself:
- Spend time in the shade between 11am and 3pm.
- Make sure you never burn.
- Cover yourself up with a T-shirt, hat and sunglasses.
- Take care not to let children get burned.
- Use sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15.
- Keep an eye on any moles or freckles you have. If they change at all (for example, get bigger or begin bleeding), see your GP as this can be an early sign of cancer. The earlier skin cancer is caught, the easier it is to treat, so see your GP as soon as possible.
However, we need sunlight on our skin so that our bodies can produce vitamin D, which is essential for healthy bones - just be careful!
Source: NHS Choices (Cancer, Preventing Cancer), NIH (Cancer)