About cancer and your cancer journey

Cancer is a term used to describe a disease of the body's cells where cells divide abnormally without control. Cancer is serious because it can spread locally to normal tissue, regionally to nearby lymph nodes and organs, and to distant parts of the body.

Cancer is not a single disease with a single cause and a single type of treatment. 

There are more than 200 types of cancer that are named after the organ, or type of cell from which the tumour starts.

For example, a primary cancer that starts in the breast is called breast cancer.

Types of cancers

There are different categories of cancer.

Carcinoma

Cancer that starts from the lining cells of the body's inner surface such as lungs, bowel, reproductive organs and reproductive organs.

Sarcoma

Cancer that starts in the connective or supportive tissue. These are the cells that make up bone, cartilage, fat, muscle and blood vessels.

Leukaemia

Cancer that starts in blood forming cells such as bone marrow and spleen, which causes large numbers of white blood cells to be produced and enter the blood.

Lymphoma and myeloma

Cancers that start in the cells of the immune system.

Central nervous system cancers

Cancers that start in the tissues of the brain and spinal cord.

Normally, cells grow and multiply in an orderly way with old cells being replaced with new cells, to maintain healthy tissues and repair injuries. 

However, in some cases this process goes wrong with the genetic material of cells becoming damaged and producing mutated cells. 

Therefore old cells do not die and the body still produces new cells resulting in an uncontrolled growth to form a cellular mass called a tumour.

Benign and malignant cancers

There are two types of tumours.

Benign cancers

Benign tumours are not cancerous but can be dangerous if they press on vital organs such as the brain. 

They can often be removed and in most cases they will not recur. Benign tumours do not spread to other parts of the body.

Malignant cancers

Malignant tumours are cancerous. 

Cells in these tumours can invade nearby tissues and spread to other parts of the body.

Cancer cells can spread to other parts of the body from the original cancer site through the blood or lymphatic system.

This is known as either:

  • invasion - the direct migration and penetration by cancer cells into neighbouring issues
  • or metastasis - the ability of cancer cells to penetrate into lymphatic and blood vessels, circulate through the bloodstream and then invade normal tissues elsewhere in the body.

Advanced cancer

Advanced cancer is a term used to describe primary cancer or metastatic/secondary cancer that is unlikely to be cured. 

Often this is a recurrence of cancer that has already been treated. 

Advanced cancer can be treated to slow the growth and spread of the cancer for months or years, and reduce symptoms.

People with advanced stages of cancer have a life limiting illness. 

Even if they are initially feeling well, death is a likely part of the future as the cancer grows and may spread to vital organs such as the lungs or brain. 

Treatment will be focused on ways to enhance quality of life while managing symptoms such as pain. 

Go to palliative care to find out more information.

Your cancer journey

Your cancer journey is your individual experience of cancer.

The journey may not look the same for everybody, even if they have the same type of cancer.

Your symptoms and treatment may be quite different depending on your stage of cancer and other underlying conditions and treatment.

Different people may react differently to cancer treatments.

You may want to take an active part in making decisions about your care. It is important to learn all you can about the disease and treatment choices available.

Primary care

A visit to the doctor or clinic for a routine check up may reveal signs that need further investigation. 

Sometimes people have particular symptoms that are highly indicative of cancer, but some early stage cancers have little or no obvious symptoms. 

Your doctor may request further tests to make a diagnosis or may refer you to an appropriate specialist. 

This could be any of the following:

  • oncologist - tumour and cancer specialist
  • haematologist - blood cancer specialist
  • surgeon 
  • specialist physician.

For more information, go to the following pages:

Last updated: 27 June 2017