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The 5 most common types of cancer

Breast Cancer


Most people consider a lump in the breast to be the first sign of potential breast cancer and while this is certainly the case for many, it isn’t the only symptom. It’s important however to remember that the majority of breast lumps are diagnosed as benign, but it’s still important to get it checked by a doctor sooner rather than later.

According to Cancer Research UK, most benign breast lumps are “areas of normal lumpiness that is more obvious just before a period, cysts – sacs of fluid in the breast tissue, which are quite common, or fibroadenoma – a collection of fibrous glandular tissue (these are common in younger women, for example under 30). Other potential indicators can include:

  • A lump or swelling in your armpit
  • Change in size, shape or feel of your breast
  • Skin changes
  • Fluid leaking from your nipple
  • Change in the position of your nipple
  • Breast pain
  • Inflamed, red or sore breast


The main treatments for breast cancer include surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, hormonal therapy, targeted cancer drugs or bone strengthening drugs. You will be considered for one or more of these treatments in consultation with the multi-disciplinary team of healthcare professionals who will be looking after you. The treatment you will be offered depends on a variety of things including  where your cancer is, whether it has spread, the type of cancer and your general health and fitness.

What contributes towards the risk of breast cancer?

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in the UK and is much more common in women than men. Men do get breast cancer, though it is much rarer; in 2017, 390 men were diagnosed as opposed to over 54,000 women.

Risk factors that can increase the likelihood of getting breast cancer include being overweight or obese (especially post-menopause), drinking alcohol, taking the contraceptive pill (although this is a very slight risk in younger women), taking Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT), smoking, plus risks you can’t control such as family history, ethnicity, age at onset of puberty/menopause and several other causes including if you’ve previously had cancer.

Prostate Cancer


As men age, their prostate gland enlarges. This can cause symptoms that may lead people to worry they have cancer but that isn’t usually the case. These symptoms include passing urine more often, getting up during the night to empty your bladder, and difficulty passing urine. These symptoms are much more likely to be due to a routine enlarging of the prostate which then presses on the urethra and causes urinary abnormalities; however, it is important to have this checked by a doctor regardless.


The doctor will likely give you a PSA blood test which can help to determine if you have prostate cancer or not and depending on the results, will want to begin treatment. This can include observation (where no other treatment is necessary due to catching it early), surgery, hormone therapy, radiotherapy, or clinical trial therapy such as High Intensity Ultrasound (HIFU), or cryotherapy.

What contributes towards the risk of prostate cancer?

Unlike breast cancer, there is no clear link between prostate cancer and preventable causes, except if you’re overweight or obese. Uncontrollable risk factors include:

  • Age
  • Ethnicity
  • Family history & genes
  • Hormone levels

Lung cancer


Lung cancer begins in the windpipe, the main airway or the lung tissue. It may not show symptoms in its early stages and many of its symptoms could also be attributed to other conditions. However, if you have any of the following it should be investigated by a doctor:

  • Having a cough most of the time
  • A change in a cough you have had for a long time
  • Things you used to do easily making you out of breath
  • Coughing up phlegm (sputum) with blood in it
  • An ache or pain in the chest or shoulder
  • Chest infections that return or don’t improve
  • Appetite loss
  • Fatigue
  • Weight loss


Like some other cancers, treatment for lung cancer depends on where the cancer is, how big it is, where (if anywhere) it has spread to, a grading system and the person’s general health and fitness. Your multi-disciplinary team will discuss with you your options for treatment which may include surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, targeted cancer drugs, immunotherapy and symptom control treatment.

What contributes towards the risk of lung cancer?

The biggest risk factor for lung cancer in the UK is smoking tobacco. In fact, about 7 out of 10 people who get lung cancer do so because of smoking. Other causes include exposure to chemicals in the workplace such as asbestos, silica, and diesel exhaust. Air pollution can also pose a small risk of getting lung cancer in the UK. If you have COPD it can also increase the risk, as can having a close relative with lung cancer due to possible genetic links.

Bowel cancer


Bowel cancer can start in the colon or the rectum and is sometimes referred to as colorectal cancer. It can occur in both men and women and a doctor should investigate if bowel habits change or you notice blood in your stools or from your rectum. Other symptoms can include a lump that your doctor can feel in your back passage or abdomen, needing to go to the toilet even when you’ve emptied your bowels, losing weight, pain in your abdomen or back passage.


Treatments for both colon and rectal cancer include surgery and chemotherapy, or for rectal cancer you may also be offered radiotherapy and chemoradiotherapy, which is a chemotherapy combined with radiotherapy, usually carried out before surgery.

What contributes towards the risk of bowel cancer?

While risk factors for both colon and rectal cancer don’t definitively mean you’ll get them, much like other cancers they can impose a greater risk so should be avoided where possible. These include lifestyle factors such as smoking, diet, being overweight or obese, drinking alcohol, and not being active. Uncontrollable risk factors include age, family history, previous cancers, being exposed to radiation, and medical conditions such as Crohn’s disease or polyps.

Melanoma skin cancer


Melanoma skin cancer symptoms include a new mole, or one that seems to be growing quickly or changing. It is important to familiarise yourself with the ABCDE test and talk to your doctor if you notice any of the following patches or areas on your skin:

A – asymmetrical: Melanomas are likely to have an uneven shape and not be symmetrical

B – border: Melanomas often have a blurred or jagged edge to them

C – colour: If you notice an uneven colour or various shades then this could be a melanoma

D – diameter: Most melanomas are more than 6mm wide

E – evolving: If you notice any changes then talk to your doctor.


Treatment varies on the type of skin cancer and where it is located on your body, but can include surgery, radiotherapy, targeted drugs, immunotherapy, and chemotherapy.

What contributes towards the risk of skin cancer?

Age is one of the main risk factors in getting melanoma and the risk increases the older we get. More than 25% of the people being diagnosed in the UK are over 75, however compared to other cancers, it is quite common in younger people too. Ultraviolet (UV) light is the main factor with around 85% of melanomas coming from increased exposure to UV light, either from the sun or sunbeds.

Fair-skinned people and those with moles or freckles are also more susceptible, as are people who burn in the sun. Using sunscreen may not reduce the risk overall, because people often use it to stay in the sun longer and therefore become exposed to a greater amount of UV light. However, by utilising shade, sunglasses and covering up in the sun, it can be enjoyed more safely.

Page reviewed by Deanna Lane, Senior Regional Clinical Lead on November 9, 2021