“What is cancer?”

Cancer is a disease of the body’s cells, the microscopic building blocks which make up the human body.  Normally cells grow and divide in an orderly way. Occasionally, however, some cells reproduce themselves in an uncontrolled way and these abnormal cells may grow into a lump that is called a tumour.

For more information, view the Cancer Education Video.

“What causes cancer?”

The causes of cancer are complex, and there is a lot of confusing information about what causes cancer. Because there are over 200 different types of cancer, we know that there is no single cause. It is important to know that not all available information about the causes of cancer are based on research. Things like deodorants, power lines, stress, mobile phones, artificial sweeteners and preservatives have not been proven to cause cancer.

So, what does cause cancer?

Over time a cell can become damaged from the environment around it. Research shows that if a cell becomes damaged, there is an increased chance of cancer developing. Lifestyle and environmental factors that can damage cells include:

  • Smoking tobacco
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Not being physically active
  • Eating an unhealthy diet
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Damage from the sun’s ultraviolet rays, and
  • Damage from some viruses like Human papilloma virus and Hepatitis B.

The amount of damage that a cell can handle before it becomes cancerous will be different for different people, and people with a family history of some cancers may have an increased risk of developing cancer.

“Is cancer contagious?”

Cancer is not contagious. You can’t catch cancer directly from someone who has the disease.

It is possible to catch a virus, such as human papillomavirus or hepatitis, which can increase your risk of developing cervical cancer and liver cancer, respectively.

“What are the early symptoms of cancer?”

The most urgent symptoms are coughing up blood or blood in your poo or pee.  If you notice one of these symptoms, even just once, tell your doctor, clinic nurse or Aboriginal health worker.

Other symptoms that may be serious if they go on for more than 4 weeks include:

  • Problems peeing,
  • Runny poo,
  • Unexplained weight loss,
  • An unusual pain, lump or swelling anywhere in your body,
  • Becoming more short of breath,
  • A persistent cough, or
  • A new or changed spot on your skin.

If you notice any of these, or anything unusual for your body tell your doctor, clinic nurse or health worker straight away. It might just save your life.

“How do I know if I have cancer?”

The only way to know for sure whether you have cancer is to see a doctor. Don’t put off visiting your doctor, clinic nurse or health worker if you have any concerns about possible cancer symptoms. Make it a priority to get checked out, so you know for sure whether there’s anything to worry about.

“What is cancer screening?”

Population cancer screening, such as screening mammograms and Faecal Occult Blood Tests (home bowel cancer screening kits), are excellent methods for finding early cancer in people who are not experiencing any symptoms. Cancer Council WA encourages people to participate in all population screening that they are eligible for, each time that they are eligible.

It is important to note that cancer screening does not replace the need to be aware of early cancer symptoms and changes to your body. Likewise, a recent or upcoming screening test does not override the need to discuss any unusual symptoms with your doctor, clinic nurse or Aboriginal health worker.

It is a common misconception that people who feel well do not need to participate in screening.

“Who should have cancer screening?”

Adults aged 50-74 years with no bowel symptoms are eligible to participate in bowel cancer screening every two years, and will receive a bowel cancer screening kit in the post each time they are eligible.

Women aged 40-74 years with no breast symptoms are eligible to participate in breast cancer screening every two years. Only women aged between 50 and 74 years will be encouraged to attend with a letter in the post.

“I have noticed a possible cancer symptom, should I just wait for my next screening test?”

Waiting for a screening test could potentially delay your diagnosis and treatment, and may impact your outcome. If you have a suspected symptom you should go visit your doctor, clinic nurse or Aboriginal health worker without delay.

“I had a screening test recently that came back clear and now I have a possible cancer symptom. What should I do?”

If you have a cancer symptom it is important to tell your doctor, clinic nurse or Aboriginal health worker. You may have developed a cancer that the screening test missed or has developed after screening.

“If I’m fit and healthy, do I need to still look out for cancer symptoms?”

All men and women are at risk of getting cancer, so it’s important to know the common symptoms of cancer so you can get it diagnosed and treated early.

“I’m participating in screening tests regularly, should I still look out for cancer symptoms?”

Yes, it is important to still look out for cancer symptoms. Participating in cancer screening tests regularly reduces your risk of dying from cancer, but no screening test is 100% accurate.

“If I go for annual/regular skin checks with my doctor, do I need to still keep a look out for skin cancer symptoms?”

Yes! Skin cancers can appear at any time and they can grow quickly. If you wait until your next visit with the doctor, you could be giving a new skin cancer time to grow. It makes a lot of sense to get to know your skin and check yourself three or four times a year. If you do, the odds are that you will find a new or changed spot and then you can get along to the doctor quickly. The earlier a skin cancer is treated the better off you will be.

Here is a handy guide to what you should look for.

“How common is cancer before age 40?”

Some of the most common cancers affecting Western Australians – prostate, breast, melanoma, bowel and lung cancer – are uncommon in people aged under 40 years.

In 2014, approximately 6% of WA breast cancer diagnoses were in people aged 15-39 years. In the same year, around 4% of bowel cancer diagnoses were in people under the age of 40. Approximately 8% of melanoma diagnoses were in people aged aged 15-39 years and the proportion of lung and prostate cancer diagnoses in this population were less than 1%.

Similarly, deaths of people under the age of 40 for these five cancers were negligible with fewer than 5 deaths per cancer for this age group.

“Should I get a second opinion about cancer symptoms?”

If you have attended an appointment to discuss a potential cancer symptom with a doctor, clinic nurse or Aboriginal health worker and you’re not satisfied with their advice, you can see another doctor,  nurse or health worker. For some regional people, this means traveling to the next town, though if you have a ‘gut feeling’ that something isn’t right, it’s important to go the distance and have your concerns investigated early.