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What is cancer?

Women's Health | May 30, 2018 | Author: Naturopath

cancer, men

What is cancer?

Chances are you know a friend, relative or co-worker who is battling cancer, in remission, or has lost the fight against this horrendous disease. Currently cancer is the leading cause of death in Australia with breast cancer in women and prostate cancer in males being the most common types. In stating all these grim facts, the truth is that roughly a third of all cancers are attributed to diet and lifestyle factors. This is all good news and means that there are a lot of things that can be done to prevent the development and progression of cancer.

Cancer overview

Healthy cells

The entire human body is made up of cells which include our genetic makeup or DNA. Healthy cells divide at a controlled rate to repair damaged tissues and replace dying cells.

Cancerous cells

Cancer overviewCancer refers to a large number of diseases that are characterised by uncontrollable cell growth.

These abnormal cells divide at an accelerated rate and have the ability to destroy healthy body tissue.

Growths or tumours are a result of this accelerated cell growth and can be either benign or malignant.


Benign tumours can occur anywhere in the body and are not cancerous. They generally are not a threat to your health as they don’t spread to other parts of the body or grow back once removed.

Malignant tumours are cancerous. They are usually serious and can be life-threatening. Malignant tumours grow uncontrollably, interfere with normal metabolic or organ function and can spread to other locations in the body (metastasize). Cancerous cells can travel in the bloodstream, lymphatics or other avenues such as cerebrospinal fluid.

Cancer types

There are over one hundred different types of cancer. The leading cancers in Australia are breast and prostate, followed by colorectal, melanoma and lung cancer.

They each have different causes, symptoms, levels of aggressiveness and treatment. Most types fall into four broad categories:

  • Carcinomas—cancers that affect the skin or the tissue lining organs, such as the liver or kidneys.
  • Leukemias—cancers of blood-forming tissues that hinders the body’s ability to fight infection.
  • Sarcomas—cancers that affect bones and soft tissues such as muscles and connective tissue.
  • Lymphomas—cancers that affect the lymphatic system.

Symptoms of cancer

The signs and symptoms will vary depending on what part of your body is affected. This list isn’t exhaustive but includes some of the general signs and symptoms associated with but not specific to cancer.

  • Fatigue
  • A lump or thickening that can be felt under the skin
  • Indigestion or difficulty swallowing
  • Obvious changes in a wart or mole
  • A change in bowel or bladder habits
  • Unusual bleeding or discharge
  • Nagging cough or hoarseness
  • Persistent, unexplained muscle or joint pain
  • Fever or night sweats for no obvious reason

Preventing cancer

Cancer is a multifactorial disease triggered by a combination of genetic, behavioural, lifestyle, and environmental factors. In preventing cancer, all these factors need to be taken into consideration.

Healthy diet

The key to preventing abnormal cell growth is to eat a balanced diet with loads of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Preventing cancerLow intakes of fibre, fruit and vegetables and high intakes of processed meats and highly salted foods have been linked to gastric cancer. 

Foods to avoid include:

  • foods high in fat
  • refined grains
  • sugar
  • excessive animal proteins
  • alcohol. 

However, specific fats such as omega-3 fatty acids found in oily fish, walnuts and linseeds have demonstrated protective effects for breast, prostate and colon cancer. An increased intake of fruits and vegetables is also protective against lung, oesophageal and colon cancer. 

Decrease stress

While acute stress is sometimes unavoidable, chronic stress can have negative impacts on many aspects of our health.

Find ways to relieve stress by incorporating relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation, deep breathing, reading or walking in nature.

Ensure adequate sleep each night

Insomnia and sleep disturbances are common. If our body doesn’t get enough rest each night this affects our bodies ability to repair and regenerate. Aim for at least 8 hours each night and allow wind down time before this to nod off quicker.
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Maintain an optimal body weightMaintain an optimal body weight

Overweight and obesity are linked to higher cancer rates.

Keep your risk low by keeping your body weight within the healthy range by eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly.



Exercise and physical activity

Regular physical activity has been linked to a lower risk of cancer. Each day aim for 30 minutes or longer of activity that is suitable for your ability level. In addition to this, try to keep the body moving regularly with small bouts of activity such as using the stairs, getting up from your desk or doing activities around the house.

Practice safe sex

Certain types of cancer including anal, cervical, vulvar, penis and some mouth cancers are more likely to occur in people who have the human papilloma virus (HPV). This virus is spread through sexual contact and can be prevented by using condoms.
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Drugs and alcohol

Drink alcohol in moderation and refrain from cigarette smoking and illicit drugs. Smoking is linked to an increased risk of lung, cervical and vulvar cancers. Alcohol consumption increases total cancer risk, but more specifically liver, breast and colon cancer.

Preventing cancerHave fun and enjoyment in life

Try to find time during your week to spend on things you enjoy. This could be a hobby, journaling, watching a movie, travelling and spending time with family and friends.
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Bottom line

The chain of events that leads to cancer is extremely complex. Prevent your risk by adopting healthy diet and lifestyle behaviours such as eating more fruit and veg, quitting smoking and exercising.

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Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Cancer in Australia 2014: actual incidence data from 1982 to 2011 and mortality data from 1982 to 2012 with projections to 2014. Asia Pac J Clin Oncol. 2015 Sep;11(3):208-20

Katzke VA, et al. Lifestyle and cancer risk. Cancer J. 2015 Mar-Apr;21(2):104-10

Gonzales JF, et al. Applying the precautionary principle to nutrition and cancer. J Am Coll Nutr. 2014;33(3):239-46

Payne JK, et al. State of the science: stress, inflammation, and cancer. Oncol Nurs Forum. 2014 Sep;41(5):533-40

Jing K, et al. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and cancer. Anticancer Agents Med Chem. 2013 Oct;13(8):1162-77

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