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Key facts and health messages about cancer

Watch cancer awareness trainers at Cancer Research UK explain some of the key facts and health messages you can use to talk about cancer.
subject, which is perhaps why many people are put off from having a conversation about cancer. But this doesn’t have to be the case. We believe that many people avoid talking about cancer because we worry that we don’t have enough information to start the conversation. Another common concern is that, once the conversation starts, we may not know what to say or have the right answers to questions that come up. Let’s start with some basic information about cancer in simple terms to help give you the confidence to start the conversation.
Please bear in mind the facts we will talk about apply to the UK, but may vary elsewhere. We’ll talk you through some of the key facts and figures and give an overview of what cancer is and how it starts. We’ll then talk through the difference that your conversation could make in terms of encouraging prevention and early diagnosis.
Key UK facts. One in two people born in the UK after 1960 will develop cancer in their lifetime. There were around 360,000 new cases of cancer in the UK in 2015. Around four in 10 cases of cancer can be prevented by things like not smoking, keeping a healthy weight, enjoying the sun safely, cutting back on alcohol, and eating healthily. It’s more common as we get older. Most cases are in people aged 50 or over. One in five cases in England are diagnosed through emergency routes. And patients diagnosed this way are more likely to have later stage disease and therefore lower chances of survival.
One in two people diagnosed with cancer in England and Wales between 2010 and 2011 now survive their disease for 10 or more years. Genetic specialists estimate only between 3% and 10% of all cancers diagnosed are caused by a fault in a gene that has been passed down in the family. So what is cancer? Cancer happens when the DNA that makes up the genes in our cells becomes damaged and causes a cell to stop functioning properly. Damage can happen just because the body isn’t perfect. And sometimes it makes mistakes when copying DNA to make new cells. But damage can also be caused by things like tobacco smoke or too much UV radiation from the sun.
If enough damage builds up, a cell can start to divide in an uncontrolled way, making copies of itself, which can lead to a tumour. How many different types are there? In our experience, many people don’t realise that there are over 200 different types of cancer. This is because we have around 200 different types of cells in our body. And they all have the potential to go wrong. Even within these 200 cancers, there are subtypes. For example, there are over 10 different types of breast cancer. And they may all have different treatments. This means that two people diagnosed with the same cancer at the same time may have completely different treatment for their disease.
Really, when we use the word cancer we are describing lots of different diseases that all have different signs and symptoms and a variety of different treatments. This is why cancer can be complicated. And it’s important that if people want to talk about their particular cancer that they are directed towards their specialist team. Four most common cancers. Out of the more than 200 different types of cancer, there are four that are more common than all the others put together, making up over half of all of the cancers diagnosed in the UK every year. These are breast, prostate, lung, and bowel cancers. You can see how many more cases there are of these compared to other cancer types. Most common treatments.
You may have heard of the most common treatments for cancer– surgery, radiotherapy, and chemotherapy. People diagnosed with cancer may have only one of these treatments or a combination. You may have heard of others, but let’s keep this simple. You can visit Cancer Research UK’S website for more information. Primary and secondary cancers. When we speak to people, they’re often confused about primary and secondary cancers. A primary cancer is the name for where a cancer starts. Cancer can also spread to other parts of the body. And this is called a secondary cancer, or a metastasis. This happens when cells are broken off from the primary site and travel to another part of the body.
When this happens, the treatment will still be for the primary cancer that has spread. For example, if bowel cancer spreads to a different part of the body, the treatment will still be for a secondary bowel cancer. This is important to know when looking for information about cancer treatments. Survival. Many people still think of cancer as a death sentence. But one in two of those diagnosed with cancer now survive the disease for 10 years or longer. This is twice as many as 40 years ago. So it’s getting better. However, this is for the overall picture. Survival is much better for some cancers than others as you can see from this graph.
Nowadays, some types of cancer are treated as a chronic disease similar to the way we now think of some types of heart disease and diabetes. Prevention. Scientists have estimated that around four in 10 cancer cases can be prevented. Lots of things have an impact on our risk of cancer. And some are more important than others. You may remember some of these from the quiz. Smoking is the biggest preventable cause of cancer, but other things like our weight, diet, alcohol intake, and time in the sun can also have a big impact. Early diagnosis. Thousands of lives could be saved if cancer was diagnosed earlier in the UK.
For example, when bowel cancer is diagnosed at the earliest stage, more than nine out of 10 people survive their disease for five years or more, compared with around one in 10 when diagnosed at the later stage. Early diagnosis plays a big part in how successful treatment might be. If we can catch cancer at an earlier stage, it’s more likely to be treated successfully. That’s where the power of a good conversation comes in. You can encourage people to spot cancer earlier by going to seek medical advice or see their GP. However, we are aware it’s not always possible to diagnose cancers early. Signs and symptoms.
Because there are so many different types of cancer, each with its own set of possible signs and symptoms, we can’t learn them all, but we don’t need to. There really is only one thing to remember, which is if it’s not normal for you, tell your doctor. In most cases, it won’t be cancer, but it’s best to get it checked out. This doesn’t mean we need to regularly check our bodies in a particular way or at a particular time, but if you spot something that’s not normal for you, it’s important to tell your doctor. Cancer screening. Another way to spot cancer early is through the NHS cancer screening programmes.
There are currently three cancer screening programmes in the UK– bowel, breast, and cervical. The purpose of screening is to test apparently healthy people for any signs of the disease before they develop symptoms. We know that cancer screening saves thousands of lives every year because it can detect cancers at an early stage and in some cases even prevent cancers from developing in the first place. But screening is not perfect. The test can miss cancers and have other risks too. Whether or not someone goes for screening is their choice. And people need balanced information to help them make that decision. Information is sent with a screening invitation. And there’s lots of further information available, for example, from Cancer Research UK.
We’ve only covered the basics here, so please follow the links below to our website for more information. Make sure you check out the local stats tool to find out what’s happening in your area. We know that cancer can be complicated. And that’s often why people feel too uncomfortable to talk about it. We don’t expect you to remember all the key facts, but just talking about cancer is the important thing. It’s fine to say I don’t know to questions that might be raised. We will talk more about where to direct people for information in week three. But for now, choose one of the following resources to take a look at in more detail.
Find something you think might be useful to use in a conversation about cancer and share your findings in the comments section.

People can be reluctant to talk about cancer because they don’t think they have enough information to start a conversation.

Some people may be concerned that they won’t know what to say or have the right answers to questions. Knowing key facts and health messages can help build up confidence for talking about cancer.

Watch Gill make some of the key facts and messages easy to understand. The video is 10 minutes long, so remember you can pause it as you see fit, and return to it anytime during the course. You can also download a transcript in the downloads section below so that you can refer back to information in the future.

Activity and discussion

  • Choose one of the links below, from the Cancer Research UK website, and have a look. Afterwards, use the back button on your screen to return to the course:

    About Cancer


    Causes of cancer and reducing risk

    Early Diagnosis

  • What additional facts and health messages did you find that may be useful? And why?
  • Please share your findings in the comments section.
  • You can make a note of these links to refer back to and share with others if they ask you a question you can’t answer, to encourage them to seek information themselves.
  • Don’t forget you can ‘like’ others’ ideas and comments, and choose who to follow.

Optional activity

  • If you are in the UK, you may want to try the local statistics tool on the Cancer Research UK website and find out what is happening in your area.
  • Does anything surprise you? Share what you have learned by using the comments section.

What’s next?

In the next step we will listen to a conversation Anita has with her friends about cancer. See which myths and facts you can spot.

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Talking About Cancer: Reducing Risk, Early Detection and Myth-busting

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