What is cancer and what to do when a loved one gets cancer?

Dr. Christopher Smith
16 min readOct 24, 2021

About me: I am a physician-scientist working in area of CBD medicine and I promote https://www.buy-swiss-cbd-ihs.com/redir-affiliation-186-79026.html as I prefer only highest grade Swiss CBD.

Cancer starts in our cells. Cells are tiny building blocks that make up the body’s organs and tissues. Cells receive signals from the body, telling them when to grow and when to divide to make new cells. This is how our bodies grow and heal. These cells can become old, damaged or no longer needed. When this happens, the cell gets a signal from the body to stop working and die.

Sometimes these signals can go wrong, and the cell becomes abnormal. The abnormal cell may keep dividing to make more and more abnormal cells. These can form a lump, called a tumour.

Not all tumours are cancer. Doctors can tell if a tumour is cancer by taking a small sample of cells from it. This is called a biopsy. The doctors examine the sample under a microscope to look for cancer cells.

A tumour that is not cancer (a benign tumour) may grow, but it cannot spread to anywhere else in the body. It usually only causes problems if it grows and presses on nearby organs.

A tumour that is cancer (a malignant tumour) can grow into nearby tissue.

Sometimes cancer cells spread from where the cancer started (the primary site) to other parts of the body. They can travel around the body in the blood or through lymph fluid which is part of the lymphatic system. When these cancer cells reach another part of the body, they may grow and form another tumour. This is called a secondary cancer or a metastasis.

Some types of cancer start from blood cells. Abnormal cells can build up in the blood, and sometimes the bone marrow. This is where blood cells are made. These types of cancer are sometimes called blood cancers.

Symptoms and screening

If you notice any changes to your body, it is important that you visit your GP. There can be different reasons for these changes or symptoms. You may think that other health conditions are causing the symptoms. Or you may think they are just changes that are happening as you get older. But if you have any new symptoms that do not go away, it is important to tell your GP. If your GP wants to find out more, they may arrange different tests or scans.

Visiting your GP

Before visiting your GP, it is a good idea to plan what you want to say. You could write down any questions you have. You may also want to record any symptoms you have. You could use a symptom diary for this. A symptom diary can help you describe your symptoms when you visit your GP. This will help your GP decide what the problem may be. They will want to know how long you have had the symptoms. They may ask if anything makes the symptoms better or worse.

The lymphatic system

The lymphatic system helps protect us from infection and disease. Sometimes cancer cells can travel through lymph fluid to other parts of the body.

What is the lymphatic system?

The lymphatic system helps protect us from infection and disease. It is part of the body’s immune system. Lymph fluid passes through lymph nodes. A network of lymph vessels connects the lymph nodes together. You have nodes throughout your body.

The lymphatic system does different things:

  • it acts as a one-way drainage system — this means it moves fluid from body tissues into the blood circulation
  • it contains white blood cells called lymphocytes, which fight infection
  • it gets rid of any waste that cells make.

How the lymphatic system works

Lymph fluid normally flows through a network of lymph vessels. These lymph vessels connect to a group of lymph nodes. The nodes act as a filter. They trap or destroy anything harmful that the body does not need.

Inside the lymph nodes are white blood cells, also called lymphocytes. These white blood cells attack and break down bacteria, viruses, damaged cells or cancer cells.

The lymph fluid carries the waste products and destroyed bacteria back into the bloodstream. The liver or kidneys then remove these from the blood. The body passes them out with other body waste, through bowel movements (poo) or urine (pee).

Lymph nodes sometimes trap bacteria or viruses that they cannot destroy straight away. For example, they may do this when you have an infection. When the lymph nodes are fighting the infection, they often swell and become sore to touch.

Sometimes cancer cells spread from where a cancer started (the primary site) to other parts of the body. They can travel around the body in the blood or through lymph fluid. When these cancer cells reach another part of the body, they may grow and form another tumour. This is called a secondary cancer or a metastasis.

Cancer cells can sometimes spread into the lymph nodes from a cancer somewhere else in the body. This is called secondary cancer in the lymph nodes. Cancer can also start in the lymph nodes themselves. This is called lymphoma. If there is cancer in the lymph nodes, they may swell, but are usually painless.

There are different causes of swollen lymph nodes. But if you notice a painless, swollen lymph node, it is important to get it checked by your GP.

How to recognise the symptoms of cancer

Know your body

If you know your body and what is normal for you, it will help you to be aware of any changes. People sometimes think a change in their body is not worth bothering their GP about. Or they may feel embarrassed talking about it.

But if you notice a change in how you feel or how your body works, it is better to be safe and get it checked.

Always see your GP if you have symptoms that are ongoing, unexplained or unusual for you.

Ongoing symptoms

If you have a symptom that lasts for more than 3 weeks, see your GP. This might be a cough that does not go away, a change in bowel habits, a mouth ulcer that does not heal, or feeling bloated most days.

Unexplained symptoms

This means a symptom that does not have an obvious cause. For example, having a lump or bleeding without any injury.

Symptoms that are unusual for you

This means a change in your body that is not normal for you. It could be a change in a cough you have had for a long time, a change to a mole, new unexplained bleeding or a change in the skin on your breast.

Having any of these symptoms does not usually mean you have cancer, but it is sensible to speak to your GP. The cause of the symptoms is probably nothing to worry about, but it could be a sign of something that needs treatment.

If it is cancer, the sooner it is found, the more likely it is to be cured. And if it’s nothing serious, your GP can tell you not to worry.

If you have already been to your GP but the symptoms have not gone away, it is important to see them again in a week or so.

Symptoms to watch for

If you have any of the symptoms listed here, see your GP. You are not wasting their time and it is important to get these symptoms checked.

General symptoms

  • Unexplained bleeding
  • Any unexplained bleeding is a sign that something might be wrong. You should always get this checked by your GP. This can include blood in your pee, poo, spit or vomit. For women, it also includes vaginal bleeding in between periods, after sex or after the menopause.
  • Lumps
  • Pain
  • Extreme tiredness
  • Night sweats

Symptoms that affect how you eat

  • Trouble swallowing
  • If you have any difficulty swallowing or chewing, or a feeling that something is stuck in your throat, you should get it checked by your GP.
  • Weight loss
  • Indigestion and heartburn

Bladder and bowel symptoms

  • Bloating
  • If you feel bloated (having a swollen tummy) most of the time, talk to your GP so they can check it for you.
  • Change in bowel habit
  • Problems peeing

Symptoms that affect your speech or breathing

  • An ongoing cough
  • Tell your GP if you have a cough that has lasted for more than 3 weeks, or if it gets worse.
  • Breathlessness
  • Hoarse voice

Symptoms that affect your skin

  • Changes to a mole
  • See your GP straight away if you notice a new mole, a change in an existing mole, or a change in your skin.
  • A sore that does not heal

What are risk factors?

Everyone has a certain risk of developing cancer. A combination of genes, lifestyle and environment can affect this risk. Doctors do not know the exact causes of cancer. But there are risk factors that can increase your chance of developing it.

Having one or more risk factors does not mean you will get cancer. Also, having no risk factors does not mean you will not develop cancer.

Around 1 in 3 cases of the most common cancers (about 33%) could be prevented by eating a healthy diet, keeping to a healthy weight and being more active. There are some things you can do to lower your risk of developing cancer. But you cannot reduce your risk completely through your lifestyle.

Age

For most people, increasing age is the biggest risk factor for developing cancer. In general, people over 65 have the greatest risk of developing cancer. People under 50 have a much lower risk.

Family history

Cancer is very common and most of us have relatives who have had cancer. People often worry that a history of cancer in their family greatly increases their risk of developing it. But fewer than 1 in 10 cancers are associated with a strong family history of cancer. If you are worried, you should talk to your GP.

Lifestyle risk factors and reducing your risk

Giving up smoking

In the UK, more than 1 in 4 cancer deaths (over 25%) are caused by smoking.

Breathing in other people’s smoke (passive smoking) also increases your risk of developing cancer.

Keep your home smoke-free to protect you and your family’s health. If you smoke, giving up is one of the most important thing you can do for your health.

If you want to give up smoking, it is never too late to stop. Ask your GP for advice, or contact the stop-smoking service in your area.

Keeping to a healthy weight

Being overweight increases the risk of many types of cancer, including cancers of the bowel, kidney, womb and gullet (oesophagus). Women who are overweight and have been through the menopause also have a higher risk of breast cancer.

Keeping to a healthy body weight reduces your risk of cancer and other health problems, such as heart disease and diabetes.

If you are worried about your weight or need more information, talk to your GP or a dietitian.

Eating a balanced diet

There is no single food that causes or prevents cancer.

Eating a balanced diet is good for your overall health and helps reduce your risk of some cancers. It can also help you to keep to a healthy weight.

Eating plenty of high-fibre foods helps reduce the risk of bowel cancer. Red and processed meat are linked to a higher risk of bowel and prostate cancer. Try to limit how much you eat. Red meats include beef, pork, lamb and veal. Processed meats include sausages, bacon, salami, tinned meats, and packet meats like sandwich ham.

Being physically active

Many studies have found that regular physical activity can reduce the risk of cancer. You should try to do at least 30 minutes of activity every day.

Your cancer risk is reduced further if you are active for more than 30 minutes a day and if you exercise harder (vigorous activity). The NHS has more information on how to stay active.

Limiting how much alcohol you drink

Drinking alcohol increases your risk of mouth and throat cancers. But it is also linked to other cancers.

In general, the more you drink, the higher your risk. Your risk is even higher if you also smoke.

You should try to stick to the current guidelines on drinking alcohol.

Taking care in the sun

Spending some time outside in the sun helps you stay healthy. Our bodies need sunlight to make vitamin D.

But it is important to protect your skin from burning, as this can increase your risk of skin cancers.

If you are going to be out in the sun for longer than a few minutes, you should protect your skin:

  • Keep your arms and legs covered by wearing long-sleeved tops and trousers. Wear a wide-brimmed hat to protect your face and neck.
  • Use suncream with a high sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30. Choose one that protects against UVA and UVB, with four or five stars.
  • Make sure you use enough sun cream. Experts say you need at least six to eight teaspoons of lotion for an average-sized adult to give the SPF coverage it says on the bottle.
  • Stay out of the sun during the hottest part of the day. This is usually between 11am and 3pm.

Using sun beds or sun lamps also increases your risk of skin cancer. If you want to look tanned, use fake-tanning lotions or sprays.

Other risk factors

Workplace and environmental factors

Exposure to harmful substances in the environment or workplace can cause cancer. Substances that cause cancer are called carcinogens. Some of these carcinogens can cause cancer years after you have been exposed to them.

If you have a cancer caused by your workplace, you may be able to claim Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit.

  • Asbestos
  • Chemicals
  • Environmental causes

Low immunity

If you have low immunity, your immune system does not work as well. This means you are more likely to get infections.

People with a lower immunity may have:

  • had a transplant and take drugs to suppress the immune system — these drugs stop the body rejecting the transplant
  • HIV (human immunodeficiency virus)
  • a medical condition that lowers their immunity.

If you have low immunity, you may be more likely to develop some cancers. These cancers include lymphoma, non-melanoma skin cancer and Kaposi’s sarcoma, or cancers caused by a virus or bacteria.

Viruses and bacteria

Viral infections are very common and usually do not cause cancer to develop. A small number of viruses have been linked to a higher risk of certain types of cancer. These include:

  • Human papilloma viruses (HPV)
  • Epstein-Barr virus
  • Hepatitus B and C
  • HIV
  • T-cell leukaemia virus
  • There is also a common bacterial infection called H. pylori (Helicobacter pylori). Over a long period of time, it can increase the risk of stomach cancer.

Not everyone infected with these viruses or bacteria will develop cancer.

Reducing your risk

You cannot protect yourself against all viruses and bacteria. But there are things you can do to reduce your risk of developing some of these:

  • HPV vaccination
  • Hepatitis B and C and HIV

Pre-cancerous conditions

Having a pre-cancerous condition does not mean that you have cancer, or that you will definitely develop cancer. But pre-cancerous conditions are diseases or syndromes that might develop into a cancer, so it’s important to monitor your health.

Treatment

After you have seen your GP, you may have some tests and scans at the hospital to help the doctors make a diagnosis.

Usually, if you have been diagnosed with cancer, a team of health professionals will work together to plan the treatment they feel is best for you. This team is called a multidisciplinary team (MDT).

Depending on the type of cancer you have and how it is treated, you may be seen by some or all of these healthcare professionals:

  • Surgeon — a doctor who specialises in a specific cancer type and does operations.
  • Medical oncologist — a doctor who specialises in treating cancer with chemotherapy and other cancer drugs.
  • Clinical oncologist — a doctor who specialises in treating cancer with radiotherapy, chemotherapy and other cancer drugs.
  • Haematologist — a doctor who specialises in diagnosing and treating blood disorders, including some cancers.
  • Pathologist — a doctor who studies cells and body tissues.
  • Clinical nurse specialist — an expert nurse who specialises in a particular area of health, such as cancer or a specific cancer type.
  • Radiologist — a specialist in x-rays and scans.

You may also be seen by other health or social care professionals, such as a physiotherapist, dietitian, occupational therapist (OT), radiographer, doctor or nurse who specialises in symptom control, or a counsellor or psychologist.

Even after you have been diagnosed, you may need more tests to find out more about the cancer.

The MDT will meet together to discuss the results of these tests and plan your treatment. They will consider a number of things, including:

  • the type and size of the cancer and whether it has spread
  • your general health
  • national treatment guidelines for your type of cancer.

Decisions about treatment

There are a number of things to consider when you are about to make a decision about treatment. It is good to think about the possible benefits and disadvantages of treatment to help you make the right decision for you. There are no right or wrong answers.

Many people are frightened at the idea of having cancer treatments, particularly because of the side effects. But these can usually be controlled with medicines. Treatment can be given for different reasons and the potential benefits will vary depending upon your individual situation.

Your doctors will not be able to give you any treatment until you have given your consent.

Making your decision

You may feel overwhelmed by all the information you have been given. Or you may feel under pressure to do what you think your relatives and friends want.

It may help to think about how you approached big decisions in the past:

  • Are you guided by your first impressions and instincts?
  • Do you usually need to think things through for a long time?
  • Do you make a decision alone or after discussing it with other people?

If you can, do something different to distract you from making the decision. Taking a short break may help you look at all the information with a fresh approach. You may find it helps to talk through your options with your family or friends.

If you need to decide quickly, it may help to get a good night’s sleep and then make the decision the next day.

Help with making a decision

If you are having trouble deciding, talk to your family and friends. They may be able to simplify things for you. You can also make an appointment to see your doctor or specialist nurse to talk to them again.

You could write a list of the benefits and disadvantages of the treatment you have been offered.

Try to think about:

  • the aim of the treatment
  • how successful the treatment is likely to be
  • the possible side effects
  • how often you will need to go to the hospital and for how long
  • the effects of the treatment on your family and social life
  • the effects on your work and finances.

These are just examples. It is important to take time to make your decision. This will be hard if doctors want to start treatment soon. But it is important that you have time to think about the information you have and ask more questions if you need to.

Your healthcare team may suggest a decision aid to guide you through your choices. Your doctor or nurse can talk to you about this.

How will you know if you have made the right choice?

There is no right or wrong decision. People make different choices for different reasons.

The most important thing to remember is that the decision you make is the right one for you at the time. No one can say exactly what will happen in the future. It is likely that there will always be some uncertainty.

You may find you change your mind over time. How you feel now may be different from how you felt a few weeks or months ago. You may also feel different in the future.

As your situation changes, your choices may change too. Your healthcare team will support you and will respect the choices you make.

If the cancer cannot be cured

If a cure is not possible and treatment aims to control the cancer, it may be difficult to decide whether to go ahead.

If the cancer is advanced and has spread to other parts of the body, treatment may be able to control it, improving symptoms and quality of life. However, for some people in this situation the treatment will have no effect on the cancer and they would get the side effects without any of the benefit.

Making decisions about treatment in these circumstances is always difficult. You may need to discuss in detail with your doctor whether you wish to have treatment. If you choose not to have treatment, you can have supportive (palliative) care to control any symptoms.

CBD oil

Many types of cannabis oil are sold online. CBD oil is also sold in some shops, such as health food shops.

CBD oil in its pure form does not contain THC. This means it does not have any psychoactive effects (it does not make you feel stoned). CBD oil is not a controlled substance under the Misuse of Drugs Act. It can be sold in the UK as a food supplement and if the seller does not make any claims about its medicinal properties.

Understandably, many people want to try anything that may help treat cancer, particularly if things are not going well with conventional cancer treatments. This could be if they have cancer themselves, or if a loved one has cancer.

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I am a physician-scientist working in area of CBD medicine and I promote https://www.buy-swiss-cbd-ihs.com/redir-affiliation-186-79026.html as I prefer only highest grade Swiss CBD. If you wish to use CBD as complementary to existing medicines but not as alternative to your cancer medicines, please consult your physician. CBD is often consumed for managing anxiety, depression, and pain associated with cancers but not for direct anti-tumor activity. All reports of anti-tumor activity are at early stages and large scale studies are needed to take them seriously for there to be an approved medicine.

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Dr. Christopher Smith

Physician, scientist, professor, studying role of CBD in epilepsy, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, dystonia, anxiety, and cancers.