One in two people will develop some type of cancer during their lifetime. While this can feel scary, it also gives us an incentive to pay more attention to possible symptoms of the disease, to help catch anything early, and hopefully have a better outcome if we are diagnosed.
Of course, there are hundreds of different types of cancer, making it hard to be aware of each one, but having a basic understanding of the four most common types in the UK – breast, lung, prostate and bowel cancer – is a good place to start.
Karis Betts, Health Information Manager at Cancer Research UK, said, "There are over 200 types of cancer with lots of different possible symptoms. It's impossible to know them all, which is why it's important to get your doctor's advice if you notice anything that's not normal for you or isn't going away. It probably won't be cancer. But if it is, spotting it early means that treatment is more likely to be successful."
While you should go to the GP about any worrying symptoms you're unsure of, being able to recognise potential signs for cancers that most commonly affect people might just encourage you to make that appointment when you need to most. Doing so could be the difference between a better and worse prognosis.
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That said, many people, understandably, have had reservations about going to see their GP about possible cancer symptoms over the past couple of years, due to long waiting times, feeling like the NHS has 'more important matters' to deal with due to Covid, or not being able to have in-person appointments. But, as Betts says, "If it’s difficult getting through to a GP practice or getting an appointment, keep trying, your doctor does want to hear from you if something isn’t right.”
Plus, the toll the pandemic has taken on cancer care is now easing slightly. David Fitzgerald, Director – Policy and Strategy, NHS Cancer Programme, said: “We know that catching cancer early gives people a much better chance of survival. Thanks to the hard work of NHS staff, we are back on track with cancer referrals, diagnosis and treatment after the peak of Covid-19, so, whether you or a loved one has a routine appointment, or symptoms you’re worried could be cancer, please don’t delay and come forward to get yourself checked – we would rather see you sooner when any cancer would be easier to treat.”
So, let's find out a little more about the UK's four most common cancer types, and the signs and symptoms to be aware of, as guided by the NHS.
1. Breast cancer
Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in the UK, with most women diagnosed being over the age of 50, though younger women can also get it.
While it can seem worrying that around one in eight women are diagnosed with the disease during their lifetime, there's a good chance of recovery for this type of cancer if detected early enough, highlighting the importance of alerting your GP about any potential symptoms.
The best way to discover any symptoms is for women and people with breasts to check them regularly for any changes, specifically a lump or area of thickened breast tissue. While lumps are likely not cancerous, if found, it's important to have them examined professionally, before making this assumption. Technically, we all have breast tissue, so there's no harm in us all having a feel.
Other than lumps, symptoms to look out and feel for include a change in the size or shape of one or both breasts, discharge from either of your nipples (which may contain blood), a lump or swelling in either of your armpits, dimples, a rash around the nipple, and a change in the nipple's appearance, such as becoming sunken.
Read more: Men and cancer: How to spot the signs
2. Lung cancer
Another common type is lung cancer, which is also one of the most serious, affecting around 47,000 people in the UK every year. In terms of spotting symptoms early, it can be more tricky with this type of cancer as they usually don't show in early stages.
However, many people with lung cancer will eventually develop symptoms that might include a persistent cough, coughing up blood, persistent breathlessness, unexplained tiredness and weight loss, and an ache or pain when coughing. Again, all of which should be discussed with a GP as the first port of call.
There are two main types of primary lung cancer (beginning in the lungs), non-small-cell lung cancer (the most common), of which there are three types, and small-cell lung cancer (less common). Lung cancer most commonly affects older people, with more than four out of 10 diagnosed in the UK aged 75 and over.
While people who have never smoked can develop lung cancer, smoking is the most common cause, so being aware of the impact your lifestyle has on your health might also help you pick up on possible symptoms of the disease, or consider some healthier habits as a preventative measure.
3. Prostate cancer
Prostate cancer is often very slow to develop, so people may live with it for a few years without noticing any symptoms at all, as they only appear when the prostate is large enough to affect the tube that carries urine from the bladder out of the penis. The prostate itself is a small gland in the pelvis, found between the penis and the bladder, and is part of the male reproductive system.
When prostate cancer reaches the stage that symptoms might show, these include needing to pee more often, straining while peeing and a feeling that your bladder has not fully emptied. Again, while it's more likely they're caused by something else, ignoring them is never worth the risk.
If found and treated early enough, some cases of prostate cancer can be cured, while if found at a later stage when the cancer has spread to other parts of the body, and cannot be cured, treatment will be focused on prolonging life and easing symptoms. Getting an early diagnosis for this slow developing disease is key to being able to monitor it, or treat it while possible.
4. Bowel cancer
Bowel cancer is the overall term given to cancer that begins in the large bowel – depending on where it starts, it is sometimes called colon or rectal cancer.
Almost nine in 10 people diagnosed with bowel cancer are aged 60 or over, with contributing factors to the disease including age, diet, weight, exercise, alcohol, smoking, and family history.
The three main symptoms are persistent blood in poo (that doesn't occur for any obvious reason), a persistent change in your bowel habit (e.g. needing to poo more, or it changing in consistency) and persistent lower tummy pain, bloating or discomfort (caused by eating, and may be associated with loss of appetite or significant unintentional weight loss).
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Dr André Ilbawi, Acting Technical Lead, Cancer Control, World Health Organization (WHO), added: "We all have the ability to reduce our cancer risks. It begins by focusing on a healthy lifestyle – eating a balanced diet, taking regular exercise, and not using tobacco.
"And, when we are worried about symptoms that could be cancer – a new breast mass, persistent cough or changes in our urinary or bowel habits, blood in the stool - the best step is to talk to our general health practitioner.
"While these symptoms do not always mean you have cancer, seeking care early can save lives when it is cancer. All cancers can be treated and many can be both prevented and cured."
If you are nervous about speaking to your GP about any of the above symptoms, or any other possible cancer signs, you can seek advice about how to prepare and what questions to ask at the appointment, as well as discuss any other cancer concerns, by calling Macmillan's helpline on 0808 808 00 00.