What is cancer?

Your body is made up of many small parts, like building blocks, called cells. There are different types of cells in each part of the body. These cells are too small to see with your eyes.

Cancer is a disease where the cells of the body grow in a way that is not normal. Healthy cells grow in a cycle; they multiply and grow all the time. Cancer cells are different from healthy cells and grow the wrong way. 

In most cancers, the cells grow into lumps called tumours. They can grow into the surrounding areas and invade the organs around it; or spread to other parts of the body (this is called metastatic cancer, also called secondary or advanced cancer). These tumours can also cause other problems inside the body. 

Cancer usually starts in one place in the body. The name of the cancer comes from the place it first starts. So, lung cancer starts in the lungs, and breast cancer starts in the breast, and so on.

Cancer cells can spread and grow into nearby parts of the body, or move to other parts of the body and grow there. This is metastatic cancer, also called secondary or advanced cancer.

Cancers can be of different types and stages or grades. The cancer one person has is usually different to the cancer another person has.

What can we do about cancer?

Many people who get cancer will be offered treatment to help them get better. Many do recover especially if cancer has been found early.

Cancer can cause serious problems. If a tumour grows big, it can stop that part of the body working properly. Cancer can cause symptoms such as pain, or it can make someone feel tired and sick. But there are treatments available that can help you feel better. 

There is help available for our mob with cancer. This can be medical help with your doctor, nurse or Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander health worker as well as traditional healing and cultural practices that look after our body. mind, spirit and Country.

Things you may hear about

Everyone with cancer has a different journey, and so we’ll hear lots of different things from people who have survived cancer. It’s hard to remember all the information. Some of the things we hear may be difficult to understand or accept. It is important to remember that everyone’s symptoms and treatment are different so what one person experiences may not be the same as you. It does not mean they are wrong, it’s just different. 

Our spiritual and cultural beliefs about what causes serious illness might be something we consider when diagnosed with cancer. Our beliefs might not be the same as our doctor, nurse or Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander health worker. It is important to yarn about these things with your health team and family. 

Cancer is not:

  • your fault
  • a breach of cultural protocols
  • taboo, or 
  • a disease you can catch from someone else.

Here are a few things that you might hear about.

People don’t always pass on from cancer 

Some people believe that when you have cancer you are going to die. But lots of people with cancer get treated, get well and go on to live healthy lives. 

They do that by seeing a doctor, nurse or Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander health worker when something is going on with their body that is new or different, or that worries them.

They have regular screening tests to try to detect cancer early.

If they are diagnosed with cancer, they meet with a team of healthcare professionals who can plan and give treatment for their cancer.

Once they have completed their treatment, they may need to keep seeing their doctor for regular check-ups. 

It is good to try to have a healthy lifestyle and get help from local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health service, as well as doctors, nurses and mob to make any changes that are needed. Maintaining your family and cultural activities is also good for your wellbeing.

Not all tumours are cancer

If you or someone you know has a tumour, it does not mean its cancer. Tumour is a word that means lump or swelling.

Some tumours are benign, which means they are not cancer, even though they might grow bigger and be worrying. 

Some tumours are malignant – that means they can spread to other parts of the body if not treated early on. Sometimes, these malignant tumours may have already spread to other parts of the body when they are found. 

You can’t catch cancer 

Cancer does not spread from one person to another and you can’t catch it from someone who has it. If two people in the same family or from the same community have both got cancer, it doesn’t mean that one of them caught it off the other. They both just got it separately.

There is no shame job in cancer

There is no shame job or guilt when it comes to cancer. It is just something that happens to people.  Cancer is not a form of pay-back, or the result of something bad that you did. There are things you can do to try to prevent cancer, such as healthy diet, exercise, not smoking or drinking alcohol. But no one really knows why cancer happens to some people and not others. Read more about why cancer is no shame job.

Life with and after cancer


Where can I get help or support?