What is cancer


It’s hard to define cancer as a single condition because there are so many different types.

The common feature of all cancers is the abnormal multiplication of cells. Cells in our bodies divide and multiply every day, forming new cells as old cells get worn out or damaged. However, if one or more genes in a cell are damaged or altered, the cell may divide more often than it should. Cells that multiply out of control can create a cluster of abnormal cells that form a tumour.

Some cancers develop slowly and don’t spread, others can spread rapidly in the bloodstream to surrounding areas in the body. With so many different types of cancer, there are many diverse ways of diagnosing and treating the disease.

What causes cancer?

We don’t know why all cancers develop. What we do know is that some cancers can develop due to environmental, genetic or lifestyle factors – or a combination of all three.

Smoking, exposure to chemicals, diet, obesity, lack of exercise, genetics and infection can all increase your risk of getting cancer.

You should make your doctor aware of any family history of cancer as this can increase your risk. Australia’s cancer screening programs are designed to screen people who are at risk.

Reduce your risk

The good news is that many of the risk factors for developing cancer are entirely within our control. An estimated one in three cases of cancer can be prevented. Check your lifestyle risk here with this Cancer Australia risk calculator tool.

Quit smoking

By quitting smoking you’re reducing your risk of developing cancer. Smoking causes one in nine cancers. The more you smoke, the greater your risk. Smoking is responsible for one in every five deaths from cancer. Quitting smoking will also  improve your health in many other ways.  Call Australia’s Quitline on 13 78 48 for help and advice.

Eat more fruit and veg

People who eat lots of vegetables and fruit have a lower risk of developing certain cancers. Researchers believe the vitamins, minerals and antioxidants in fruit and veg may offer protection from free radicals that can damage cells. Follow Australian nutritional guidelines and eat at least five serves of veg and  two fruit every day.

Avoid too much red meat

Avoid or reduce your intake of red or processed meat and you’ll reduce your risk of developing cancer. Even small amounts of red and processed meat (like bacon, ham and salami) can increase your risk of developing bowel cancer. One study found eating more than a single rasher of bacon every day could increase the risk of developing breast cancer by 21 percent.

Exercise more

Regular physical activity can reduce your risk of developing many cancers, including breast cancer, which is the most common cancer amongst women. Aim to get at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise every day and include strength training exercises. The more you do, the greater the benefits.

Drink less alcohol

Alcohol is carcinogenic. Avoid alcohol or limit your consumption to no more than four standard drinks on any one day and no more than ten standard drinks per week. The more alcohol you drink, the greater your risk of developing certain cancers, including breast, bowel, stomach, mouth, esophagus and liver cancer.

Lose weight

Losing weight if you’re overweight or obese can reduce your risk of getting 11 different types of cancer. If you’ve had cancer and recovered, maintaining a healthy weight can reduce the risk of the cancer coming back.

Be smart in the sun

Wear protective clothing, use sunblock, seek out shade on sunny summer days and always wear sunglasses to protect your eyes from the damaging UV radiation in sunlight. Unprotected exposure to sunlight causes more than 95% of all skin cancers.


Symptoms of cancer

Given the wide range of cancers that exist, symptoms can vary quite dramatically. Early detection of cancer can improve survival rates, so see your doctor if you experience any of the following:

  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Lumps or bumps on or under your skin
  • Discharge from nipples or change in skin
  • Blood loss or blood in stools
  • Anaemia or pale skin
  • Persistent coughing or chest pain
  • Unexplained headaches or nausea
  • Weakness in your limbs

Australia’s Cancer Council has a wealth of resources on cancer, including causes, symptoms, types of cancer and advice for anyone who has been diagnosed with cancer.

Early detection gives you the best chance of getting successfully treated, so see your GP or health professional at the earliest opportunity if you have any symptoms.


Most common cancers

The most common cancers in Australia that occur in men and women are prostate cancer and breast cancer.


Prostate cancer is the most common non-skin cancer in men. It usually progresses slowly and, if detected early enough, can be successfully treated with radiotherapy, hormone therapy or surgery. Often the prognosis is good. Some men with prostate cancer can live for decades without needing any treatment.

Symptoms of prostate cancer include:

  • Needing to urinate suddenly or more often
  • Difficulty or discomfort when urinating
  • Blood in urine or semen
  • Lower back pain or pain in the upper thighs or hips

If you experience any of those symptoms, see your health professional without delay. More men die of prostate cancer than women die of breast cancer.

You can find out more about prostate cancer from the Prostate Cancer Foundation of Australia.

Other common cancers in men are bowel, melanoma, lung and head and neck.


Breast cancer is the most common cancer in Australian women. It includes non-invasive cancers that haven’t grown into the breast tissue, and invasive cancers that have spread into the breast tissue and sometimes beyond.

Early detection increases the chance of successful treatment and recovery. Five-year survival rates have improved in the past three decades, from 73% in 1985-1989 to 90% today. If the cancer is confined to the breast, five-year survival rates are 96%.

Check your breasts regularly for any lumps, discharge or change in appearance or texture. If you experience any symptoms, see your health professional without delay. Symptoms of breast cancer can include:

  • A new lump in the breast or under the arm
  • Thickening, swelling or changed size or shape of any part of the breast
  • Discharge from the nipple
  • Skin irritation, redness, flaking skin or dimpling
  • Pain or pulling in the nipple area
  • Pain in any part of the breast

You can find out more about breast cancer from the Breast Cancer Network Australia.

The next most common cancers in women are bowel, melanoma, lung and uterine cancer.

Skin cancer

In Australia we have one of the world’s highest rates of skin cancer. Two out of three Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer by the age of 70, and around 80% of all newly diagnosed cancers each year are skin cancers.

Nearly all skin cancers are preventable.

Most skin cancer is caused by exposure to sunlight. Getting sunburnt can damage skin cells. Even without sunburn, exposure to the UV radiation in sunlight can increase your risk of getting skin cancer.

Follow the SunSmart guidelines whenever you’re out in the sun:

  • Slip on protective clothing
  • Slop on broad spectrum sunscreen
  • Slap on a broad-brimmed hat
  • Seek shade
  • Slide on sunglasses

Check your skin regularly for any small lumps, spots, freckles or moles that change in shape, colour or thickness. Any sores that won’t heal or lumps that look pale, pearly or red should be checked by a health professional.

Find out more about how to protect your skin from the sun at SunSmart.


Cancer treatment

Treatment will depend on the type of cancer, the stage it has reached and how far it has spread. The aim of treatment is to cure the cancer – and cures are now more common given advances in treatment – or to control the disease and limit the spread. Treatment can also ease pain and other symptoms.

In general terms, the earlier you diagnose and treat cancer, the better chance there is of curing it.

The most common treatments are surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Other options include immunotherapy, which works by boosting the body’s own immune system, hormone therapy to slow or stop the spread, and stem cell transplants, also known as bone marrow transplants.

Successful treatment rates have increased in the past three decades. Figures from 30 years ago show five in 10 people survived for at least five years after diagnosis. That figure has risen now to around seven in 10 people.


Cancer screening

Early detection of cancer is vital for improved survival rates and effective treatment. It’s particularly important to be screened for cancers if you meet any of the risk factors such as family history. There are many screening programs in Australia designed to detect cancer.

  • The National Bowel cancer screening program is a bi-annual program for eligible people aged
    50 to 74 that offers a simple test you can do at home.
  • Women aged 40 to 74 have free access to the Breast Screen Australia program, which
    encourages all women over the age of 50 to have a mammogram every two years.
  • A simple blood test can check for specific antigen levels in the prostate. Men can ask their GP to
    conduct the test.
  • Australia’s cervical screening program screens women every five years, starting at the age of 25.



We support the Commonwealth Bank’s annual Can4Cancer fundraising initiative that has raised millions of dollars for cancer research.

With our help, thousands of walkers take part in sponsored walks around major capital cities to raise vital funds for cancer research. As the exclusive Wellbeing partner for the Can4Cancer events, we share the same cancer-smart values of Can4Cancer.

Tour de Cure partners with the CommBank Foundation community initiative to help fund bold research projects that have the greatest potential impact in the search for cure for cancer.

In 2019, cyclists and walkers in Can4Cancer and Tour de Cure raised more than $2.6 million to help cure and prevent cancer.

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