Cancer is one of the biggest killers in the UK. Statistic show that there are over 160,000 deaths from the disease every year, though with the development of more sophisticated treatments, more people are surviving the disease. Cancer begins in the cells of our body. Cells make up every tissue and organ in our body. New cells are formed when older cells divide. Cancer develops when cell division goes out of control. The developing cells form a lump or tumour. But not all tumours are cancerous, some are what is called benign. Benign lumps do not spread elsewhere in the body, but cancerous or malignant tumours can. If cancerous cells spread to other parts of the body, this is more serious and is called a secondary cancer.
- 1 The usual symptoms of cancer
- 1.1 Unexplained bleeding
- 1.2 Unexplained weight loss
- 1.3 A lump or swelling
- 1.4 Unexplained pain
- 1.5 Why do people get cancer?
- 1.6 Lifestyle factors
- 1.7 Age
- 1.8 Occupational risks
- 1.9 Environmental causes of cancer
- 1.10 Genetics
- 1.11 Viruses and bacteria
- 1.12 Cancer treatments
- 1.13 Surgery
- 1.14 Chemotherapy
- 1.15 Radiotherapy
- 1.16 Cancers affecting women
- 1.17 Cervical cancer:
- 1.18 Endometrial cancer:
- 1.19 Ovarian cancer:
- 1.20 What is cervical cancer?
- 1.21 15 warning signs of cervical cancer
- 1.22 1. Leg pain
- 1.23 2. Vaginal discharge
- 1.24 3. Abnormal bleeding
- 1.25 4. Painful urination
- 1.26 5. Urinary changes
- 1.27 6. Irregular menstruation
- 1.28 7. Pain during intercourse
- 1.29 8. Pelvic pain
- 1.30 9. Back pain
- 1.31 10.Unexplained weight loss
- 1.32 11. Fatigue
- 1.33 12. Bone fractures
- 1.34 13. A palpable mass/lump in the vagina
- 1.35 14. Leakage of urine
- 1.36 15. Digestive discomfort
The usual symptoms of cancer
We all know how our body usually looks and feels, and we generally know if something’s not right. There are some symptoms that should always alert you to visit your Doctor. If you have symptoms that you can’t explain or that last for a period of time and are unusual for you, you should always ask your Doctor to check them out for you. The chances are, the symptoms could be nothing serious, but in all cancer cases, the earlier the detection, the better. There are some common symptoms of cancer which you should not ignore:
Any unexplained bleeding is a red flag. You should always get this checked out. The blood could be in your urine or your bowel movements, or in women it could be bleeding between periods. This could be the symptom of something else other than cancer, such as an infection or stomach ulcer but it’s always better to see your Doctor, as whatever the cause, this is not normal.
Unexplained weight loss
If you have lost weight without trying and it isn’t down to being on a diet or exercising, see your Doctor. Weight loss can be caused by other conditions such as thyroid problems, stress and depression, but get it checked to be sure.
A lump or swelling
If you notice an unexplained lump or swelling that wasn’t there before, see your Doctor. This could be a lump or a change in a mole on the skin. Lumps don’t automatically mean cancer, but it pays to be vigilant.
If you have unexplained pain anywhere that lasts for more than 3 weeks, get it checked out. Pain is a sign that all is not well with your body.
Why do people get cancer?
The reasons that someone develops cancer are complex, but there are some things that we know increase the risk of getting cancer.
If you don’t exercise and your diet is poor, this increases your risk of getting cancer. A poor diet is directly linked to bowel and colon cancer. If you smoke and drink alcohol, this can cause tissue damage in the body and increases your exposure to toxins.
The older you get, changes in the cells of your body make you more at risk of getting cancer.
If your job brings you into contact with harmful substances, you have an increased risk of getting cancer.
Asbestos is a material that used to be used in the construction of buildings before it was found to be dangerous. It is now illegal to use it as a construction material and a lot of older buildings had to have specialists come in and remove it. It is very damaging to the lungs and it can cause a lung cancer called Mesothelioma. Exposure to chemical dyes and chemicals used in gas works and other industries have been linked to bladder cancer. A lot of these chemicals are now banned from use in industry.
Environmental causes of cancer
One of the main causes of cancer we are exposed to is radiation, caused by sun exposure, which leads to skin cancer. Sunbeds give out a strong concentration of UV light and they are just as harmful as natural sunlight. Inhaling diesel fumes and fumes from industrial factories and chimneys has also been linked to cancer.
Some cancers have a known genetic link, and if you have these genes, you are more at risk of getting cancer. Breast cancer is one of the most well-known genetic cancers.
Viruses and bacteria
The HPV virus that causes herpes increases the risk of cervical cancer, the Epstein-Barr virus which causes glandular fever, is linked to lymphoma, hepatitis B and C is linked to liver cancer and a bacterium called H-pylori has been linked to stomach cancer.
Surgery involves cutting away cancerous tissue from the body. Surgery is used to diagnose cancer, as in a biopsy and it is used to remove cancer and to check if it has spread elsewhere in the body. Removing cancerous tissue can reduce symptoms and in the case of breast cancer, can reconstruct the body. The type of surgery you can get will depend on the cancer you have and its location.
Anti-cancer drugs are used in chemotherapy to destroy cancerous cells. They can damage healthy cells as well however, and that’s why these drugs can have very unpleasant side effects such as nausea, vomiting and hair loss. Chemotherapy can be used alone or alongside other therapies. Other drugs can be used to treat cancer, but they are not considered chemotherapy. The drug Tamoxifen treats breast cancer but it is a targeted treatment.
High energy rays are directed at the area affected by cancer to destroy the cancerous cells. Radiotherapy can damage healthy cells, which is why there are side effects, though normal healthy cells can usually repair themselves, unlike cancer cells. Radiotherapy can be given internally also. It can destroy a tumour or shrink it to control symptoms, or in the case of terminal cancer it will be used to minimise symptoms only.
Cancers affecting women
There are some types of cancer which only affect women. The most common are gynaecological cancers, which affect the reproductive system.
This cancer is caused by a virus called the human papillomavirus (HPV). The virus spreads through sexual contact, and it can cause changes in the cells in the cervix which can lead to cancer. Other risk factors for cervical cancer include smoking, having a lot of children and using contraceptive pills for a long time.
The exact cause of this cancer is unknown, but oestrogen is thought to have a role. Oestrogen makes the lining of the uterus thicken and increased cell production can lead to cancer.
This cancer usually affects women over 50 but can affect younger women as well. It causes more deaths than any other cancer of the reproductive system and its cause is not known.
Early detection is key in treating these cancers, though sometimes by the time symptoms appear, the cancer is already quite advanced. A cervical smear screening programme tests women over 25 in the UK for the disease and a pelvic exam is used to detect any symptoms of endometrial cancer. Ovarian cancer is harder to detect and is known as the ‘silent killer’ as it often has no symptoms until the cancer is too hard to treat. There is currently no effective screening technique for ovarian cancer. Treatments used for these cancers include surgery and chemotherapy, either alone or as a combined treatment regime. A vaccine has been developed in recent years which effectively prevents precancerous lesions from developing on the cervix.
What is cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer develops in the cervix, which is the neck of the womb. It can have no symptoms in the early stages, though a common indicator is vaginal bleeding between periods or after sex. If you experience unusual bleeding, you should always see your Doctor. The cells in the cervix can change over time, and rarely some of these changes can lead to cancer. Most cases can be successfully treated if detected early. The health service in England offers cervical screening to all women over the age of 25. This involves taking a swab of cells from the cervix and sending them off to a lab for examination. An abnormal screening does not mean you have cancer, though if you have precancerous cells, these can be removed by laser treatment. Almost all incidences of cervical cancer are caused by the HPV or herpes virus. This virus can cause changes in the cells of the cervix. A vaccine against the HPV virus has been offered to teenage girls since 2008.
If cervical cancer is caught early, it can be treated by surgery. This usually involves removing the womb. If the cancer is advanced, it is usually treated with chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Treatment can have considerable side effects, some of which can affect a woman’s fertility.
15 warning signs of cervical cancer
Unfortunately, the disease does not tend to be symptomatic until it has spread to other tissues. Here are 15 signs of cervical cancer you should not ignore:
1. Leg pain
In the early stages of the disease, the cervix can swell, obstructing the circulation to the lower body, causing the leg to swell and feel sore.
2. Vaginal discharge
Some vaginal discharge is a normal occurrence for women depending on the time of the month. Discharge is normal if it is clear and has no odour. If you noticed increased discharge or if it smells bad or has a bloody tinge, this can indicate cancer.
3. Abnormal bleeding
This is the most common symptom of cancer. If you have bleeding in between periods or after intercourse, you should see your Doctor. This is especially important if you have already gone through the menopause.
4. Painful urination
If you experience discomfort while urinating, such as a burning or stinging sensation, this can mean that cancer has spread to surrounding tissues.
5. Urinary changes
It’s not only urinal discomfort you should be vigilant about. You should look for tinges of blood, changes in urinary frequency or loss of bladder control. These are all signs that something is not quite right down there.
6. Irregular menstruation
Pay attention if suddenly your periods get heavier, less frequent or more frequent. There could be many other explanations like stress or the type of birth control you’re on, but if you are irregular for a few cycles in a row, see your Doctor to rule out anything sinister.
7. Pain during intercourse
Painful intercourse is known as dyspareunia and it is a common symptom of cervical cancer. Whether related to cancer or not, this is a symptom that requires investigation and treatment.
8. Pelvic pain
Pelvic pain that is not related to your period or is more intense than usual requires investigation.
9. Back pain
Back pain is common and it can be related to bad posture, your menstrual cycle or a pulled muscle, but if you have back pain along with any other symptoms, such as weight loss, see your Doctor.
10.Unexplained weight loss
Advanced cancer causes a loss of appetite, so any weight loss, especially if you didn’t intend to lose weight, warrants investigation.
Many people feel fatigued these days, we all have busy lives. But if you are a fit and healthy individual who suddenly feels like they can’t get out of bed, you need a check-up. When you have cancer, your red blood cells are outnumbered by your white T cells that are trying to fight the cancer. If you have less red blood cells, you have no energy, as they carry the oxygen to your body’s cells.
12. Bone fractures
If cancer has spread to the bone, it can weaken it and cause fractures.
13. A palpable mass/lump in the vagina
Many people won’t get this checked out for fear of being embarrassed, but an unexplained lump anywhere in the body should always be investigated.
14. Leakage of urine
Cervical cancer can spread to the bladder and damage the nerves which indicate that you need to go to the loo, so you can become incontinent.
15. Digestive discomfort
If cancer spreads to the bowel, it can cause blockages. If your bowel is not functioning normally, you can experience bloating, constipation and pain.
Cancer affects 1 in 2 people. That is a dreadful statistic. Every few minutes in the UK, someone is given the terrible news that they have cancer. Thankfully, treatments are advancing so more people survive the illness, but often the side effects of the treatment are worse than the symptoms caused by the disease itself.
There are many symptoms of cancer, and in the early stages, some of them are very vague, and we may blame them on other things. If we feel fatigued, we blame it on working too hard, or if our periods are irregular, we put it down to stress. Often we are too busy to visit the Doctor, or we may even realise that something serious might be going on, but we bury our heads in the sand about it, because things like cancer don’t happen to us, right?
We might even Google our symptoms and arrive at the conclusion we might have cancer, but dismiss it as being ridiculous. Until we get symptoms like bleeding or pain, which force us to visit the Doctor.
Any type of cancer is more easily treated the earlier it’s caught, especially cancers such as cervical cancer. Cervical cancer does not tend to be symptomatic until it is more advanced, which is why the screening programme is invaluable. A lot of women avoid cervical screening as it can be embarrassing or uncomfortable, but it pales in comparison to the discomfort caused by cancer. There have been many campaigns to get the screening age lowered. The current age at which screening begins for the disease in the UK is 25, and it used to be carried out when women turned 20. Younger women have died from the disease due to lack of available screening, though health experts have said that the incidence of cancer in this age group is so rare that it does not warrant the implementation of a screening programme. That is not to say that if you are under 25 and you have red flag symptoms such as weight loss and irregular bleeding, that you will not be screened however.
Remember that you are the expert on your own body. You know what is normal and abnormal in how your body looks and feels. If you feel in your gut that something is not right, you should insist on it being investigated. You may worry about wasting the Doctor’s time and it might turn out to be nothing, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.
If you are otherwise fit and healthy, and you begin experiencing unusual symptoms, you should have them investigated as soon as possible. It might be something that is very easily remedied, or it might be something more serious, just don’t ignore it and hope it will go away. Your life might just depend on it.