What is cancer?

Cancer is a disease that causes the body’s cells to multiply excessively. We normally produce new cells regularly and the rate varies depending on the cell type. For example skin cells normally regenerate every 28 days. However sometimes the cells multiply out of control and can form tumours.

When cancer cells remain in the area where they form they are generally not dangerous and are called benign cancers or tumours. However cells can spread throughout the body and cause disruption to other internal functions. These cancerous cells are called malignant and can form in almost any area of the body meaning there are around 100 different forms of cancer.

  • The most common cancers in Australia are Prostate, Colorectal (bowel), Breast, Melanoma and Lung Cancer.
  • In Australia 1 in 2 men and 1 in 3 women will be diagnosed with cancer by the age of 85.
  • Cancer is a leading cause of death in Australia - accounting for about 3 in 10 deaths.
  • Roughly 127,000 new cases of cancer will be diagnosed in Australia this year, with that number increasing yearly (mainly due to population growth and increased longevity). However the overall death rate from cancer has greatly decreased due to improved prevention and treatment.
  • Cancer directly costs the Australian health system more than $4.5 billion.


What causes cancer?

There is no single cause of cancer. A number of physical, chemical and biological factors are known to trigger changes in cellular structure leading to the formation of cancerous cells. These factors are called carcinogens. They include tobacco, asbestos, ultraviolet radiation. However there are many other risks and causes that we still don’t know or can only suspect.

Factors that pose the greatest cancer risks are:

  • Smoking – 1 in 9 cancers and 1 in 5 deaths are directly caused by smoking. 
  • Alcohol – Roughly 3% of all cancers are related to alcohol consumption.
  • Radiation – Particularly ultraviolet radiation from the sun.

Other risk factors include dietary influences, infectious agents and inherited damaged or ‘faulty’ genes.

Sometimes, cancers can develop with no known specific cause and some people who are at high risk may not develop cancer at all.


What are the symptoms?

With so many forms of cancer, the list of symptoms is extensive. A person may generally feel unwell or notice changes to their skin or bodily functions. Still, some symptoms may go undetected for a long time. Often the treatments needed to treat cancers produce major symptoms or side-effects in their own right.

Overall, the symptoms of cancer and its treatments can be divided into 2 broad categories – physical and mental/emotional.


Cancer sufferers often have to deal with multiple symptoms. These include nausea from the medication, lowered immunity, fatigue and muscle weakness, hair loss and dry/irritated skin. These are on top of the loss of normal function in the region of the cancer itself.

Mental / Emotional

While it is obviously vital to treat the physical symptoms of cancer urgently. It is also incredibly important to look after the person’s mental health.

After the initial shock of diagnosis, cancer sufferers are suddenly confronted with powerful emotions and confused thoughts that can feel overpowering. Many sufferers experience thoughts and feelings such as:

  • Fear of the condition, treatments and side-effects.
  • Denial of the situation.
  • Grief for their former life.
  • Anger that it has happened to them. (‘Why me?’)
  • Depression and anxiety about their present situation and their future in general.
  • Loss of self-esteem - often due to their changing appearance.
  • Suffers may withdraw from family and friends or feel that nobody understands what they are going though.
  • Hopelessness – especially in terminal cases.

In some cases cancer sufferers may become so depressed that they contemplate suicide. If you or someone you know has reached this stage then it is vital to seek professional help urgently.


What are the main treatment options for mental and emotional symptoms?

While counselling obviously won’t affect the cancer itself, it can greatly benefit your mental and emotional well-being. Those who take a holistic approach to dealing with their condition are more likely to achieve remission or possibly overcome the disease altogether.

Sometimes this may mean changing your lifestyle or taking medications such as anti-depressants. You may want to jump straight into a mainstream or alternative treatment but there are no easy ‘one-size-fits-all’ answers.


Why seek professional help?

You will no doubt have a team of medical professionals around you but it is equally important to gather your own emotional support team. This can include family, friends and support groups but sometimes you might want to talk to someone impartial who knows how to help you come to terms with your situation.

Therapy sessions are confidential and non-judgemental. Experienced counsellors or therapists can help you to make sense of your (often conflicting) emotions. They can also help you learn how to talk to others about your disease, set realistic expectations of yourself, evaluate your treatment options and create strategies to help you cope when things become too overwhelming.

Counselling can also help those around you to deal with their own feelings such as grief and denial, especially in terminal cases. Together you can learn ways to deal with practicalities and provide emotional support for each other.


Where to find help

Our directory lists hundreds of psychotherapists, psychologists, counsellors and other therapists from around Australia. These mental health experts offer counselling over the phone and online in addition to one-on-one consultations. Many also offer workshops and seminars. 

Enter your postcode or suburb into our search box to see a comprehensive list of the health care professionals near you.

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