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When you, or someone you know is diagnosed with cancer, life can change in many ways. You may find life becomes more serious and your emotions can change from moment to moment. You may feel you don’t have the right words to express how you feel. Cancer in young people is not as common as in older people. Having cancer can have a major effect on a lot of people, including the young person’s family, friends and community.
There are many places that a person living with cancer can turn to for support. There are also places that family and friends can turn to for the help they need to support their loved one. Cancer is a serious illness, but it is only an illness. Treatment is available and cancer can be treated. Treatment may lead to a cure, or at least a better quality of life.
There is more about what it is like when you or someone close to you has cancer, and about where you might get more information and help, in the topic Cancer - living with cancer.
Now What has been developed by CanTeen, the Australian Organisation for Young People Living with Cancer. Now What has been developed by a team of people including CanTeen staff and young people whose lives have been affected by cancer.
Victorian Adolescent and Young Adult Cancer Service
Our bodies are made up of millions of tiny cells. Cells are the building blocks of life. If your body is a house, cells are the bricks that make up that house. As cells grow they change to perform different jobs. Some groups of cells, for example, grow into skin. Cells divide in two (reproduce) when new cells are needed. How many cells are made in any one spot is controlled by the genes inside them and also by contact with cells around them.
Cancer forms when controls over this division go wrong. The signals which stop cells dividing when no more are needed, for some reason do not work. The cancerous cells divide over and over.
When this happens a tumour is formed. There are two types of tumours, benign and malignant. Benign tumours are not cancer, as they do not spread around the body. Malignant tumours are cancer. They can spread into local tissues, or around the body by pieces which break off.
There is much debate about what actually causes cancer. What is known is that there needs to be some change in the DNA (genetic material in a cell), so that cells grow out of control. There also needs to be something wrong with the immune system, where it does not recognise that this cell growth is abnormal and does not destroy the cancer cells.
What seems to be agreed upon is that cancer strikes randomly. There are some activities, however, which increase your chance of getting cancer. Smoking, for instance, has been strongly linked with lung cancer. But, there are many people who have smoked and never get lung cancer. Often people who seem to be at risk don’t get cancer and those who live very healthy lifestyles sometimes do. Cancer can happen to anyone. It is important to remember this, as it is not any one's fault if they get cancer.
Some things that are seen as possible triggers and can affect the chances of getting cancer are:
- tobacco. This is the major cause of cancer in the lungs. The amount and type of tobacco smoked also plays a part.
- exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Too much time in the sun – which contains UV rays – is linked with skin cancer.
- alcohol. Heavy drinkers are at greater risk of developing certain types of cancer.
- exposure to cancer-causing agents, carcinogens, in the environment, including in some foods (smoked foods have more carcinogens).
- What we eat and drink can have an affect on cancer. Having a healthy diet with lots of fresh fruit and veggies may be a way of reducing the chances of getting some cancers.
For some cancers, early detection (finding them early) can increase the chances of a cure. For some cancers there is now a high likelihood that treatment will lead to a cure, but for some cancers, treatment is mostly about helping the person to feel comfortable. Many cancers are in between. How well a cancer responds to treatment depends on the type of cancer.
- Surgery is often used to remove all or part of a tumour. This process is sometimes used in conjunction with other treatments, such as radiotherapy and chemotherapy. For some cancers, like leukaemia, surgery cannot be used.
- Radiotherapy is high-energy x-rays directed at the cancer, to kill cancer cells.
- Chemotherapy is where drugs are used to destroy the cancer cells. Chemotherapy affects other fast growing cells such as bone marrow cells and hair cells. That is why sometimes a cancer patient’s hair falls out.
- Hormone therapy is the treatment of cancer by blocking hormones that a cancer needs to grow.
- Immunotherapy is a newer treatment, which boosts the person’s immune system to help it fight the cancer.
- Bone marrow transplants are used when bone marrow cells have been deliberately destroyed during treatment, because the bone marrow is making the cancer cells. Bone marrow produces red and white blood cells.
- Pain relief and managing nausea (feeling sick). Some cancers cause pain, but the treatment of cancer can be painful and sometimes cause people to feel very ill. Pain management processes can often be very successful. Some pain relief might sometimes make you feel drowsy. Make sure that you talk in depth about possible pain and ways to manage it with your doctor or nurse.
Alternative means anything that is different from the norm. Alternative therapies are treatments which differ from "orthodox" medical treatments. These treatments are not intended to replace orthodox interventions, but are used side by side with treatments listed above.
Most of the alternative models of treatment are based on one simple idea: if our bodies and minds are at peace and in harmony, then the body can heal itself. The main techniques used to achieve this are:
- meditation, relaxation, listening to music. These and other techniques can help by slowing the person down and stopping repetitive thoughts
- diets, which reduce the exposure of the person to some foods, which may slow healing. It is important to discuss diet changes with a nutritionist during chemotherapy and radiotherapy, as they can have a major impact on the ways that food is absorbed
- counselling, getting more information and empowering the person to make their own decisions
- exercise, keeping fit and healthy in ways that are not dominated by "illness"
- developing a positive attitude. This can be very hard when you are feeling ill. Sometimes trying to be positive can become a stress in itself.
It is really important to know that this is rarely, if ever, enough to cure cancer. Also some people have been blamed by others for not being cured, or for having cancer at all, because they (wrongly) believe that the person should have been able to stop the cancer happening by living a healthy life.
You can find out more about what it is like to have cancer, or to have a friend or family member who has cancer, in the topic Cancer - living with cancer. Also listed are places that you can get support, and sites where you can get a lot more information about cancer.
The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Youth Healthline on 1300 13 17 19 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).