Cancer : Prevention and Treatment

What is cancer ?

Cancer isn't one disease. It's a name that is used for more than 100 different diseases. It can affect almost every organ of the body. Cancers are usually named after the place in which they begin.

All cancers start in the cells of your body. Normally, the cells in your body's tissues grow and reproduce themselves in a controlled manner, on order from the genes in each cell. When these orders get mixed up, the cells grow abnormally. In time, abnormal cells form lumps or tumours. Not all tumours are cancerous (malignant), some are "benign" (non-cancerous).

Can anything be done to prevent getting cancer ?

No one knows yet why some cells divide and grow uncontrollably. But it's clear that cancer is caused by a complex mix of hereditary and lifestyle factors and cancer-causing substances know as "carcinogens."

Since lifestyle can have a significant effect on the risk of getting cancer, you can take action to help prevent the disease. For example, you can :

  • eat a healthy diet (lots of fruit and vegetables and high-fibre, lower-fat foods);
  • maintain a healthy body weight;
  • if you drink alcohol, reduce the amount to two or less drinks a day;
  • get regular physical activity;
  • don't smoke; and
  • avoid direct sunlight.

Also inform your doctor of any history of cancer in your family and report any unusual swellings or lumps or other uncharacteristic changes to your overall health.

Early detection can make a big difference to the successful treatment of cancer.

How is cancer diagnosed ?

If your doctor suspects that you might have a cancer, he/she will send you to an oncologist - a cancer specialist. The oncologist will probably examine you physically, ask you about and evaluate your symptoms, and get blood tests and x-rays.

The only way to really tell whether cells are cancerous, however, is to take a tissue sample. This is called a biopsy. The cells are examined under a microscope. The doctor can then generally tell what type of cancer is present and what "stage" it has reached (the size of the tumour and how far the cancer has spread).

It's important to detect what stage the cancer has reached because this will help the oncologist decide the prognosis - the prospect of recovery - and the type of treatment he/she will recommend.

Finding out that you have cancer can be very distressing. Healthcare professionals understand your need for emotional support as well as medical treatment. They can direct you to organizations that can help. You don't have to face cancer alone.

How is cancer treated ?

Treatment depends on the type of cancer and the stage it has reached. You and your team of healthcare professionals will decide together what treatment is best for you.

Treatment can include surgery, radiation, chemotherapy and, for some cancers, hormones or hormone-blocking radiation. The goal of all treatment is to kill cancerous cells while killing as few healthy cells as possible.

Surgery is used to try and remove cancer cells that are packed together. Sometimes the surgeon will remove normal cells around the cancerous cells or tumours to see if the cancer has spread.

Radiation therapy often follows surgery. It can take a number of different forms. It is used to kill any remaining cancer cells. The side effects of radiation are the result of healthy tissue being destroyed. They usually go away once radiation therapy is completed.

Chemotherapy uses anti-cancer drugs. It is usually used when it's difficult to find the exact location of the tumour and/or when the cancer has spread into the bloodstream. A combination of different drugs is usually prescribed.

Hormones or hormone-blocking medications are used to treat certain types of cancer, such a breast cancer. Hormone therapy consists of a pill, or injection, which shrinks the tumour.

What is Cancer Care Ontario ?

It is the provincial government's principal advisor on cancer issues. Its job is to ensure that the best information is available for planning and co-ordinating cancer services. This helps to ensure that Ontarians receive timely and equitable access to an integrated system of high-quality, co-ordinated and efficient programs in prevention, early detection, care, education and research.

Where can I get more information ?

The best way to get healthy is to get informed. There are many health information sources available to you including :

Government of Ontario

For consumer-friendly health tips and information :

Infoline : 1-877-234-4343;
TTY : 1-800-387-5559

Telehealth Ontario :
1-866-797-0000; TTY 1-866-797-0007

Infoline is open during business hours and can provide general information on healthcare. Telehealth Ontario is a 24/7 service which uses registered nurses to answer your immediate health concerns.

Some other sources

Cancer Care Ontario
Tel : 416-971-9800

Canadian Cancer Society - Ontario
Tel :416-488-5400; 1-800-268-8874

Ontario Breast Screening Program
For Ontario women age 50 and over
Tel : 1-800-668-9304

March 2004  Cat. # 7610-2138479

For More Information

Call ServiceOntario, Infoline at:
1-866-532-3161 (Toll-free in Ontario only)
TTY 1-800-387-5559.
In Toronto, TTY 416-327-4282
Hours of operation : 8:30am - 5:00pm

If you are a member of the media, call Communications and Marketing Branch at 416-314-6197 or visit our News Room section.

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