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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'.

Early signs of cancer are changes to your body's normal processes or symptoms that are out of the ordinary. For example, a lump that suddenly appears on your body, unexplained bleeding or changes to your bowel habits are all symptoms that need to be checked by a doctor.

Cancer is also a National Health Priority Area (NHPA) because it has a significant impact on the Australian community in terms of death, illness and costs. Australia's NHPA Cancer Control initiative focuses on eight different types of cancers:

Sources: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (Cancer), NHS Choices, UK (Cancer)

Just diagnosed

There are over 200 different types of cancer, each with its own methods of diagnosis and treatment. Accurately diagnosing cancer can take time. As cancer often develops slowly, over several years, waiting for a few weeks will not usually impact on the effectiveness of treatment.

In many cases, cancer is treated using chemotherapy (powerful cancer-killing medication) and radiotherapy (the controlled use of high energy X-rays). Surgery may also be recommended to remove cancerous tissue.

Unfortunately people who have had one cancer are more likely to get a second cancer, which may be the same or different to their first cancer. Chemotherapy and radiotherapy further increase this risk, but it will have been considered carefully when your initial treatment is planned.

You can implement preventative measures to avoid getting a second cancer by adopting a healthy lifestyle such as not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight with a balanced diet and participating in regular exercise.

Cancer Council Australia provides more information about cancer through their website, or by calling their helpline on 13 11 20.

Sources: Cancer Council Australia (homepage), NHS Choices, UK (Cancer, Complications of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma - Secondary Cancer)

Living with

People deal with serious problems in different ways. It's hard to predict how living with cancer will affect you.

Having cancer can lead to a range of emotions. These may include shock, anxiety, relief, sadness and depression.

Being open and honest about how you feel and what your family and friends can do to help you may put others at ease. Don't feel shy about telling people that you need some time to yourself, if that's what you need.

Your doctor or specialist may be able to reassure you if you have questions, or you may find it helpful to talk to a trained counsellor, psychologist or call specialist helplines.

Patient organisations have local groups where you can meet other people who have been diagnosed with cancer and have had treatment.

If you have feelings of depression, talk to your doctor who will be able to provide advice and support.

Sources: NHS Choices, UK (Living with lung cancer)

Facts & figures

  • In 2007 there were 39,884 deaths from cancer. Of these, 22,562 were of males (32% of all male deaths) and 17,322 were of females (26% of all female deaths). The average age at death was 72 years for both males and females.
  • Between 2003 and 2007, mortality rates of cancer varied across different population groups. Indigenous Australians had higher mortality rates than non-Indigenous Australians for all cancers combined, as well as for cervical cancer and lung cancer.
  • Early detection improves survival and other outcomes. National screening programs for cancers in Australia have contributed to substantial declines in associated mortality during the last decade. Screening can also help prevent the development of cancer if changes can be found before they become cancer.

Source: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (Cancer, Cancer in Australia 2010: an overview)

Last reviewed: 
February, 2013