Updated 14 May 2015

FAQ on cancer

Cancer is no longer the death sentence it was a few decades ago. Here's what you need to know.


Think of the word 'cancer'. For most people, it has frightening connotations. But the good news is that by means of early detection, cancer is definitely not the death sentence it used to be.

What's more, there are many things you can do to prevent cancer. Below are some answers to frequently asked questions about cancer.

What is cancer?
Cancer is not just one type of disease. Hippocrates gave the name to a collection of diseases in 400 B.C. They have one common characteristic, namely uncontrolled cell growth.

Is cancer a death sentence?
Certainly not. The vast majority of cancer patients survive today especially if the cancer is treated in the early stages. New treatments have contributed to the fact that survival chances are dramatically higher than they were 30 years ago.

Is cancer hereditary?
Certain types of cancer, such as breast cancer, do seem to run in families. The important thing is to have yourself checked regularly if a family member was diagnosed with cancer.

Why do cells grow?
Cells divide and replicate themselves all the time. These cells contain our genes. About one in a million cells does not develop normally, but usually this is not a problem, as the body usually sorts out the problem by itself. When these corrective mechanisms fail, tumours develop. In certain cases, symptoms will only show after 10 – 30 years.

What are early warning signs of cancer?
This is a difficult one to answer as there are so many different types of cancer of which quite a few have almost no warning signs. Growths or tumours are often early warning signs and should be checked out immediately, as time is of the essence. Internal tumours can cause a wide variety of symptoms, including exhaustion and localized pain. An unexplained change in how your body functions could also be a warning sign. Have it checked out as a false alarm is always preferable to traumatic and invasive intervention.

What different types of cancers does one find?
Basically five types:

  1. Carcinomas are formed in the tissues that cover a surface or line internal organs of the body.
  2. Sarcomas develop in connective tissue and affect bones and soft tissue.
  3. Leukaemias are found in the blood and the blood-forming tissues.
  4. Lymphomas affect the lymphatic system that normally acts as a filter of impurities on the body.
  5. Myelomas are tumours that arise in plasma cells in the bone marrow.

What are survival chances?
Depending on the type of cancer and the stage in which it is found, chances of survival are generally very high – up to ninety percent. Today the vast majority of cancer patients beat the disease, as opposed to the situation 50 years ago, when cancer treatment was limited.

What treatments are available?
Typically, cancer is addressed through chemotherapy, radiation therapy or surgery:

  • Chemotherapy is the chemical treatment with drugs and hormones that are in the body’s system. Many normal cells are also damaged in this process, and it can cause the patient to feel quite ill for a while, but can, and often does, lead to remission of the cancer.
  • Radiation therapy. External x-rays at high levels are directed towards the tumour with a view to damaging or destroying the cancer cells.
  • Surgery. This is still the most obvious response, if the tumour is small and limited to a single area of the body.

What can I do to prevent cancer?
There is much that you can do. Stop smoking, get out of the sun, eat fish, lots of fruit and vegetables, limit your intake of animal fats, get lots of exercise and go for regular medical checkups.


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