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Cancer Overview: Symptoms, Treatment

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Cancer Overview: Symptoms, Treatment

What is Cancer?

A Collection of Related Diseases

Cancer is the name given to a collection of related diseases. In all types of cancer, some of the body’s cells begin to divide without stopping and spread into surrounding tissues.

Cancer can start almost anywhere in the human body, which is made up of trillions of cells. Normally, human cells grow and divide to form new cells as the body needs them. When cells grow old or become damaged, they die, and new cells take their place.

When cancer develops, however, this orderly process breaks down. As cells become more and more abnormal, old or damaged cells survive when they should die, and new cells form when they are not needed. These extra cells can divide without stopping and may form growths called tumors.

Many cancers form solid tumors, which are masses of tissue. Cancers of the blood, such as leukemias, generally do not form solid tumors.

Cancerous tumors are malignant, which means they can spread into, or invade, nearby tissues. In addition, as these tumors grow, some cancer cells can break off and travel to distant places in the body through the blood or the lymph system and form new tumors far from the original tumor.

Unlike malignant tumors, benign tumors do not spread into, or invade, nearby tissues. Benign tumors can sometimes be quite large, however. When removed, they usually don’t grow back, whereas malignant tumors sometimes do. Unlike most benign tumors elsewhere in the body, benign brain tumors can be life threatening.

What are the symptoms of cancer?

The most prominent symptoms of cancer include the following:

  • A sore that doesn't heal
  • A wart or mole that changes
  • An unusual lump anywhere in the body
  • A persistent cough/hoarseness
  • Indigestion or problems swallowing
  • Changes in bowel movement or urination habits
  • Unusual weight loss
  • Unusual bleeding or discharge from various parts of the body

Please note that these symptoms do not mean that you definitely have cancer. However, if any of these symptoms appear, you should see your doctor right away.

Danger Signals

  • A persistent sore especially if it is in the mouth, on the lip or on tongue. Long standing sores due to smoking, sharp edge of teeth, or dental plates that do not fit, can develop into cancer if not taken care of. Common 'Cold Sore' disappears after a few days - Cancer does not. If any such sore persists more than a few days, see your doctor.
  • Lumps or masses which appear where none were present previously should arouse suspicion of cancer. This is especially true in the case of women and is the most readily cured if treated early.
  • Persistent indigestion or change in bowel habits, while usually due to other causes, are often caused in the intestinal tract and should be reported.
  • Unexplained or abnormal bleeding from anybody opening should be quickly investigated by a physician. Coughing up or vomiting blood, passing blood in the urine and rectal bleeding are common symptoms of cancer. In women the first sign of cancer of the uterus is often a bloody discharge occurring between menstrual periods or after menopause.
  • Persistent hoarseness or cough of abnormal duration deserves a careful examination by your doctor. Cancer of the larynx (voice box) or respiratory passages or lung may be the cause.
  • Unexplained loss of weight may be due to many things but may also be due to hidden cancer.

Why cancer might come back

Cancer may come back some time after its initial treatment. This idea can be frightening. There are different reasons for why cancer might come back.

One reason is that the original treatment did not get rid of all the cancer cells and those left behind grew into a new tumour. Another is that some cancer cells have spread to other parts of the body and started growing there to form a tumour.

Treatment for cancer


Surgery is one of the main treatments for many types of cancer. Find out about when and why you might have it and what to expect before and after your operation.


Chemotherapy works by killing cancer cells and has different effects on different types of cancer. Find out how it works and the different ways you might have chemotherapy .


Find out about cancer treatment with radiotherapy, including external radiotherapy, internal radiotherapy, side effects, radiotherapy for symptoms and follow up after treatment.

Cancer drugs

Find out about individual cancer drugs, cancer drug combinations, possible side effects and how to cope with them.

Hormone therapy

Hormone therapy blocks or lowers the amount of hormones in the body to stop or slow down the growth of cancer.

Stem cell and bone marrow transplants

Bone marrow or stem cell transplant are treatments for some types of cancer. You have them with high dose chemotherapy and sometimes radiotherapy .

Targeted cancer drugs

Targeted cancer drugs work by ‘targeting’ those differences that help a cancer cell to survive and grow.


Immunotherapy uses our immune system to fight cancer. It's a standard treatment for some types of cancer and is in trials for other types of cancer.


This section tells you about bisphosphonates, including how they work and possible side effects.

Gene therapy

Gene therapy is a type of cancer treatment that is still in the early stages of research.

Other treatments

These are cancer treatments using medical technologies (interventional treatments) including laser treatment, photodynamic therapy and cryotherapy.

Complementary and alternative therapies

Learn what complementary and alternative therapies are, how they're used and what research there is .

Palliative treatment

Read about palliative treatment and how it can be used to relieve symptoms and improve your quality of life .

Personalised medicine

Personalised medicine involves using information about a person’s cancer to help diagnose, treat and find out about how well treatment is working.

Access to treatment

Find out how decisions are made about which cancer treatments are available on the NHS. See how you can ask for a second opinion, make a complaint about your care, and who can support you with doing this.

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