The information provided is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. A licensed healthcare professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any medical conditions.

Understanding Cancer

Cancer begins in cells, the building blocks that make up tissues. Tissues make up the organs of the body. Normally, cells grow and divide to form new cells as the body needs them. When cells grow old, they die, and new cells take their place. Sometimes, this process goes wrong. New cells form when the body does not need them, and old cells do not die when they should. These extra cells can form a mass of tissue called a growth or tumour. Tumours can be benign or malignant.

Benign tumours are not cancer:

  • Benign tumours are rarely life-threatening.
  • Generally, benign tumours can be removed. They usually do not grow back.
  • Cells from benign tumours do not invade the tissues around them.
  • Cells from benign tumours do not spread to other parts of the body.

Malignant tumours are cancer:

  • Malignant tumours are generally more serious than benign tumours and can be life-threatening.
  • Malignant tumours often can be removed, but sometimes they grow back.
  • Cells from malignant tumours can invade and damage nearby tissues and organs.
  • Cells from malignant tumours can spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body. Cancer cells spread by breaking away from the original (primary) tumour and entering the bloodstream or lymphatic system. The cells invade other organs and form new tumours that damage these organs. The spread of cancer is called metastasis.

Types of Cancer

The most common cancer (excluding non-melanoma skin cancer) is colorectal or bowel cancer, followed by cancers of the breast and prostate, melanoma and lung cancer.

There are more than 100 different types of cancer, but these five most common types account for 60% of all cases. In Australia, for men the most common cancers are (in order) prostate, colorectal, and lung cancers and melanoma. The most common cancer in women is breast cancer, followed by colorectal cancer, melanoma and lung cancer.

What is chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy (also called chemo) is a type of cancer treatment that uses drugs to destroy cancer cells.

How does chemotherapy work?
Chemotherapy works by stopping or slowing the growth of cancer cells, which grow and divide quickly. But it can also harm healthy cells that divide quickly, such as those that line your mouth and intestines or cause your hair to grow. Damage to healthy cells may cause side effects. Often, side effects get better or go away after chemotherapy is over.

What does chemotherapy do?
Depending on your type of cancer and how advanced it is; chemotherapy can:

  • Cure cancer - when chemotherapy destroys cancer cells to the point that your doctor can no longer detect them in your body and they will not grow back.
  • Control cancer - when chemotherapy keeps cancer from spreading, slows its growth, or destroys cancer cells that have spread to other parts of your body.
  • Ease cancer symptoms (also called palliative care) - when chemotherapy shrinks tumours that are causing pain or pressure.

How is chemotherapy used?
Sometimes, chemotherapy is used as the only cancer treatment. But more often, you will get chemotherapy along with surgery, radiation therapy or biological therapy.

Chemotherapy can:

  • Make a tumour smaller before surgery or radiation therapy. This is called neo-adjuvant chemotherapy.
  • Destroy cancer cells that may remain after surgery or radiation therapy. This is called adjuvant chemotherapy.
  • Help radiation therapy and biological therapy work better.
  • Destroy cancer cells that have come back (recurrent cancer) or spread to other parts of your body (metastatic cancer)