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What is cancer?

Cancer is just one word. But it’s used to describe more than 200 different conditions. Each one has different symptoms, features and treatments.

Put simply, cancer is caused by changes in our cells. Cells in one part of the body change, grow and reproduce, invading other nearby tissue.

Most cancer causes lumps called tumours. But cancers of the blood, such as leukaemia, usually don’t.

Don’t be afraid to go to the doctor. The earlier the diagnosis, the higher the chance that treatment will be successful.

The four most common types of cancer are lung, breast, prostate and bowel. Find out more about different types of cancer on the NHS website or ask your cancer team.

Cancer can spread. The first place where the cancer appears is called the primary site. If cells break away from the first site and settle in another part of the body, this is called secondary or metastatic cancer.

Cancer is measured in stages. Stage 1 cancer is small and contained at the original site. At Stage 2, it is larger and might have spread to lymph nodes. At Stage 3 it is larger still and has spread to lymph system and perhaps other body tissue. At Stage 4 it has settled in a second organ (secondary cancer).

Advanced cancer usually means the cancer is incurable. There is lots that can be done to make the person’s remaining time more comfortable and make sure their wishes are followed.

Cancer survival has doubled in the past 40 years. Today 50% of people with cancer will live with the condition for more than 10 years. Survival rates vary a lot depending on the type of cancer.*

As a long-term condition, cancer produces different challenges. Living with illness over extended time makes it hard to manage day-to-day practicalities such as staying in work.

New treatments are being tested all the time. If you’re interested in taking part in a trial, talk to your doctor.

Cancer affects each person differently. That’s why – whether cancer is affecting you or a friend or family member – Cancer Care Map helps you find support with the things that matter most to you.

*Figures from Cancer Research UK with thanks

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NHS England, support organisations and cancer charities across the UK

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