Cancer is a condition where cells in a specific part of the body grow and reproduce uncontrollably. The cancerous cells can invade and destroy surrounding healthy tissue, including organs.
Cancer sometimes begins in one part of the body before spreading to other areas. This process is known as metastasis.
1 in 2 people will develop some form of cancer during their lifetime. In the UK, the 4 most common types of cancer are:
There are more than 200 different types of cancer, and each is diagnosed and treated in a particular way. You can find links on this page to information about other types of cancer.
Spotting signs of Cancer
Changes to your body’s normal processes or unusual, unexplained symptoms can sometimes be an early sign of cancer.
Symptoms that need to be checked by a doctor include:
- a lump that suddenly appears on your body
- unexplained bleeding
- changes to your bowel habits
But in many cases your symptoms will not be related to cancer and will be caused by other, non-cancerous health conditions.
Reducing your risk of Cancer
Making some simple changes to your lifestyle can significantly reduce your risk of developing cancer.
The Macmillan Cancer Support website has more information about how a healthy lifestyle can help reduce your chances of developing cancer.
Accurately diagnosing cancer can take weeks or months. As cancer often develops slowly over several years, waiting for a few weeks will not usually impact on the effectiveness of treatment.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has produced referral guidelines for suspected cancer.
You should not have to wait more than 2 weeks to see a specialist if your GP suspects you have cancer and urgently refers you.
In cases where cancer has been confirmed, you should not have to wait more than 31 days from the decision to treat to the start of treatment.
Signs and symptoms
It's important to be aware of any new or worrying symptoms.
Although it's unlikely to be cancer, it's important to speak to a GP so they can investigate. Finding cancer early means it's easier to treat.
If your GP suspects cancer, they'll refer you to a specialist – usually within 2 weeks.
Changes in bowel habits
Speak to a GP if you've noticed these changes and it's lasted for 3 weeks or more:
Speak to a GP if you've had bloating for 3 weeks or more.
You should also speak to a GP if you have any unexplained bleeding, such as:
Coughing, chest pain and breathlessness
Contact a GP if you've had a cough for 3 weeks or more.
Symptoms such as shortness of breath or chest pain may also be a sign of a condition such as pneumonia. Speak to a GP straight away if you have these types of symptoms.
Speak to a GP if you notice a lump in your breast or if you have a lump that's noticeably increasing in size elsewhere on your body.
It’s important to regularly check your breasts, underarms, groin and testicles for any new lumps or changes.
Speak to a GP if you have a mole that:
- changes shape or looks uneven
- changes colour, gets darker or has more than 2 colours
- starts itching, crusting, flaking or bleeding
- gets larger or more raised from the skin
Any of the above changes means there's a chance you have malignant melanoma, a form of skin cancer.
Unexplained weight loss
You should also speak to a GP if you've lost a lot of weight over the last couple of months that cannot be explained by changes to your diet, exercise or stress.
Read about unintentional weight loss.
Tummy or back pain
Speak to a GP if you have pain anywhere in your tummy or back and you’re not sure what’s causing it. This includes a dull pain that’s always there or a sharp pain that comes and goes.
Indigestion and heartburn
Some cancers can give you indigestion, or heartburn and acid reflux. This can feel like burning in your chest (heartburn) and make you burp or hiccup more than usual.
Speak to a GP if you get any of these symptoms regularly and are not sure why you’re getting them.
Itchy or yellow skin
Speak to a GP if your skin is itchy, and your skin or the whites of your eyes turn yellow (jaundice). Your pee may also look darker than usual.
Feeling tired and unwell
With some cancers the symptoms can be harder to notice. It’s important to speak to a GP if you think something is not right, or you keep feeling tired and unwell and you’re not sure why.
It’s particularly important to look out for cancer symptoms if:
- you have been diagnosed with a condition that means you’re at higher risk of getting cancer
- 2 or more of your close relatives (such as a parent, brother or sister) have had cancer
The following links have more useful information about cancer:
Other cancer pages
The Health A-Z covers many different types of cancer: