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  • Cancer Q&A

    Cancer Q&A has been created to share questions that our cancer nurses are frequently asked.

    Cancer Council nurses provide evidence-based information and support to people affected by cancer and their families. If you have a question about anything to do with cancer speak to a Cancer Council nurse on 13 11 20 Monday to Friday 8.30am - 5.30pm, chat online at www.cancersa.org.au Monday to Friday 9.00am - 5.00pm or email askanurse@cancersa.org.au


    I am about to go back to work after surgery for bowel cancer.  I am not sure how to respond to co-workers' questions about the cancer. I am a very private person. Can you help? 


    It is natural to feel nervous when you’re returning to work after cancer treatment. It is a personal decision about what you tell your colleagues; there is no right or wrong answer.

    It may be useful to discuss this with your manager and plan how you will respond to questions. We would suggest keeping it simple and with as much information and detail as you are happy to divulge. Something like, ‘Yes I have been treated for bowel cancer and I’m fine now. Thanks for asking’. Do keep in mind that sharing information with colleagues may give them a better sense of how they can support you and you may find their social and practical support valuable.

    'Cancer,Work and You' provides practical information to assist you returning to work after cancer treatment. Click here for more information. 


    My sister has lung cancer and her husband would like to take her and their two children on a holiday. Do you know of anywhere inexpensive they could go?


    Cancer Council SA and Apex Kadina are in partnership to provide free holiday accommodation for people with cancer, their family and/or carer. The accommodation is available for seven days and the only cost is $50 to cover cleaning. To find out how to book your accommodation ring 13 11 20.


    I have a mole on my shoulder and I want to get it looked at. Is there a skin clinic I can go to?


    Finding a suspicious skin spot or mole can be worrying. If you see anything on your skin that has changed in size, shape or colour, that itches or bleeds or that you do not think was there before, there are a number of things you can do.

    While it may not be cancer we would always suggest you see your GP to get it checked. A GP can discuss your full medical and family history, examine your skin and advise you regarding appropriate care, which may involve minor procedures. If required your GP can refer you to a skin specialist (dermatologist) for further investigations. If you don’t have your own GP make an appointment to see any doctor, they can all examine your skin.

    Cancer Council SA does not endorse or operate skin clinics. If you are visiting a skin clinic ask about the expertise of staff, range of services and fee arrangements they provide. 

    For more information about sun protection or skin cancer click here, see your doctor or contact Cancer Council. 


    I am a 40 year old woman, live alone and have a diagnosis of ovarian cancer. I am finding it very difficult to manage the housework particularly the vacuuming and mopping. I also have a small front garden that is now overgrown as I am too unwell to tend to it. Do you know of any services that can help me?


    Cancer Council SA has a Practical Support Program that can provide short-term practical relief to people affected by cance and where treatment is having a significant effect on a person’s ability to remain independent at home. The program is intended for people who do not have access to government funded services and where family and friends are unable to provide support.

    The program may be able to provide assistance with cleaning, light housekeeping and meal preparation, short-term care of children and/or basic gardening. For more information about accessing this program call Cancer Council 13 11 20.


    My father is currently having chemotherapy for bowel cancer. What can I expect in terms of side effects from the chemotherapy?


    It is natural to worry about side effects. However whether or not someone experiences side effects, and how severe they are, depends on the type of drugs they are prescribed and how they react individually from one treatment period to the next. Side effects vary greatly. Some people will have no side effects, others will experience a range. If people have side effects they will usually start during the first few weeks of treatment. Most side effects are temporary and can be managed. They tend to gradually disappear once treatment has stopped.

    Side effects can include tiredness/fatigue, nausea, loss of appetite, diarrhoea/constipation, loss of hair (for some), changes in skin, risk of infections/bleeding and memory problems (chemo brain). You should talk to the doctor or nurse about the side effects you should watch out for and whom to contact out of hours if you have immediate concerns.

    Please see our 'Understanding Chemotherapy' book for more information. 


    I think I may have lymphoedema in my right arm following surgery twelve months ago for breast cancer. What should I do?


    Lymphoedema can occur at any time after surgery – even many years later. It is important to know the signs and symptoms. If lymphoedema should start to develop the sooner you seek advice and start treatment the better it can be managed.

    Early symptoms in someone who has had breast surgery may be:

    • swelling of the arm or breast
    • your rings, sleeves or wristbands feel tight
    • feelings of discomfort, heaviness and/or tightness in the arm or breast
    • aching in the arm or shoulder.

    If you think you have lymphoedema seek advice as soon as possible from your medical team, either your oncologist, breast care nurse or GP. They can discuss treatment options and assist in determining the right treatment for you. Treatments may include good skin care, exercise, compression garments and lymphatic drainage.

    Please search here to find information about lymphoedema specialists in your area. 


    Will I be protecting my children by not telling them that I have cancer?


    Research shows that children who are told about a loved one’s illness, particularly a parent’s, cope better than children kept in the dark. 

    'Talking to kids about Cancer' can provide age appropriate ideas to help you handle the difficult conversations with honesty and sensitivity. Click here for more information.


    Where can I get information about preventing cancer?

    There is a great deal of information about preventing cancer, particularly how to cut your risk of cancer. One in three cancer cases are preventable and the number of deaths due to smoking, sun exposure, poor diet, alcohol, inadequate exercise or being overweight could be reduced by making some lifestyle changes.

    There are some simple steps you can take to minimise your cancer risk. So where do you start?

    Follow this action plan to reduce your cancer risk: 

    1.     Don’t smoke.

    2.     Be SunSmart.

    3.     Be active.

    4.     Aim for a healthy weight.

    5.     Eat for health.

    6.     Avoid or limit alcohol.

    7.     Ask about cancer screening.

    Our 'Cut your cancer risk' brochure will inform you how to make healthy choices in your life. 


    I had a mastectomy 4 years ago, where do I go to get a new prosthesis?

    A permanent prosthesis costs between $200–$500. There is a Medicare Reimbursement program for breast prosthesis. All new or replacement prosthesis purchased after July 2008 for all women who have had a

    mastectomy are covered. Original purchase receipts must be attached to the claim form. 

    Contact Medicare on 13 20 11 or go to www.medicareaustralia.gov.au for more information and the claim form for reimbursement.

    If you have private health insurance, your health fund may refund part or all of the cost. You may be eligible for some of the government scheme mentioned above even if you have private health insurance. The cost of

    the prosthesis and any rebate you receive will be taken into account.

    For your nearest stockist of prosthesis, please search here.


    I have breast cancer and will have radiotherapy. Someone told me about holding your breath then having radiation. Can you tell me more about it?

    Deep Inspiration Breath Hold is a radiotherapy technique that requires you to hold your breath during your daily treatment. You need to be able to hold your breath for a short period ~ 20 seconds, several times during each daily treatment. When you hold your breath your chest is expanded and your heart is pushed down and away from your chest wall. This process will help minimise the dose of radiation to your lungs and heart during your daily treatment. Talk to your specialist about this way of giving radiation to see if it is suitable for you.


    Why does hormone treatment work for men with Prostate cancer? Isn’t it just for women?

    Hormones control the growth and activity of normal cells in the body. Women and men have different types of hormones. Hormone treatment is usually given to either replace a hormone or to stop it from working.

    Some women have hormone replacement medication either after hysterectomy or once they reach menopause. Hormone treatment, or hormone therapy, can be used to treat some types of breast cancer, but it can also be used to treat prostate cancer. 

    Prostate cancer depends on the male hormone testosterone to grow. Hormone treatment is given to block the production of the male hormones, such as testosterone. This treatment is sometimes given in early prostate cancer to lower the risk of the cancer coming back or it can be given in advanced prostate cancer to shrink the tumour or slow its growth.


    My father in law has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and he has been referred to palliative care. What does this mean?

    Palliative care provides support and care for people living with a life limiting illness. It involves a range of people with different skills and roles, working together to address physical, emotional, spiritual and practical concerns, with quality of life being the priority. They care for people across a range of settings including home, residential aged care facilities, hospitals and palliative care units. Palliative care is another service to help diagnosed cancer maintain the best possible quality of life. Palliative care can also provide support for families and carers.

    Please see our 'Understanding palliative care' book for more details.


    Should I tell my boss and work mates that I have cancer?

    It is a personal decision; there is no right or wrong answer.  While there is no law that requires you to share the diagnosis with your employer, you do have some obligations if the cancer or treatment will affect your ability to work.

    Whilst it may be daunting to have this conversation with your employer, you may find it beneficial. There may be adjustments that could be made to your work, and you may be able to access some benefits such as additional leave or flexible working arrangements. The law says they have to do what is reasonable to help you.

    Any information you provide your employer must be kept confidential. They cannot tell you’re your colleagues unless you agree. Sharing this information with you colleagues may cause you to feel uncomfortable or you may not want to answer questions about it. But it may give them the opportunity to express their concern and offer you support.

    Please see our 'Cancer, Work & You' book or click here for more information.


    I have tingling, numbness and pain in my fingers, a side effect from chemotherapy. How long will this last and what can I do to improve it?

    Some chemotherapy drugs can cause the symptoms you describe and can cause great frustration, especially if it impacts on your day to day activities. These symptoms occur when there is damage to the peripheral nerves. Symptoms include pain, burning, tingling, loss of feeling, dexterity and balance problems. Unfortunately it can become progressively worse as treatment goes on.

    Talk to your medical specialist because early diagnosis and treatment offer the best chance for controlling your symptoms and preventing further damage to the nerves. Sometimes these symptoms will resolve quickly, but for others it may take many months to resolve. In severe cases, it does not go away completely. Your doctor will be able to discuss treatments with you such as medication to relieve the nerve pain, physiotherapy, relaxation and electrical nerve stimulation.

    Please click here for some practical advice. 


    I have just been diagnosed with cancer and I am worried about how my 2 teenage children are going to cope. Have you got any suggestions?

    A diagnosis of cancer in the family can be very distressing for all involved. Cancer Council SA have a resource titled 'Talking to Kids About Cancer' that provides excellent advice on ways to discuss the diagnosis and treatment of cancer with children of all ages including teenagers. It also includes a section titled 'When cancer won’t go away'. You can also click here for more information.

    Your teenagers can also access counselling from our trained counsellors at Cancer Council SA. All they need to do is call 13 11 20 and ask for a referral to this service. You may even like to come in as a family for counselling. This service comes at no cost to you.

    CanTeen is a cancer support organisation particularly for teenagers affected by cancer including teenagers whose parents have a diagnosis of cancer. They also provide some great information and teenagers can get involved with activities in and around Adelaide and meet up with others in the same circumstances as themselves.


    Is it safe to exercise during cancer treatment?

    It is really important to look after yourself whilst having treatment for cancer and one of the best ways to do that is to stay physically active. Research has shown that exercise is not only safe but can improve how you function and your quality of life. Too much rest can lead to loss of body function, muscle weakness and reduced range of motion. Moderate exercise has been shown to improve fatigue, anxiety and depression, nausea and appetite, heart health and fitness, muscle and bone strength and weight control.

    An effective exercise program includes aerobic exercise (that pumps your heart) such as brisk walking, swimming, cycling; strength training to tone and build muscles (using your own body weight, lights weights or resistance bands) and stretching to keep muscles and joints flexible.

    Before taking part in an exercise program, talk to your oncologist or GP about any precautions you should take. Ensure you start slowly and build up gradually.

    See 'Exercise for people living with cancer' for more information.


    I have heard of chemo brain. Is it real?

    Chemo brain refers to changes in memory, trouble concentrating and difficulty thinking clearly or processing information. It is not clear what causes chemo brain but it can be a frustrating side effect of treatment and have a big impact on everyday life.

    It usually happens during or after chemotherapy but can occur with other cancer treatments such as radiotherapy and hormonal therapy. It usually improves with time once treatment has finished. There are things you can do to help yourself such as relaxation, exercise and memory games.

    Please see our 'Understanding Chemotherapy' book for more information. 


    Is there a support group for women with ovarian cancer in South Australia?

    Yes. If you are seeking information and support from others in a similar situation, a support group can provide you a safe place to come together and share experiences with other. We have face to face support groups or telephone support groups available. Please click here to search for support groups in South Australia.


    What are the symptoms of Ovarian Cancer?

    There may be no symptoms or symptoms may be vague and include:

    • abdominal bloating
    • difficulty eating or feeling full quickly
    • frequent or urgent urination
    • back, abdominal or pelvic pain
    • constipation or diarrhoea
    • menstrual irregularities
    • fatigue
    • indigestion
    • pain during sexual intercourse.

    If you have any of the above symptoms it’s important to have them checked by your doctor but remember they are common with many other conditions and most women with these symptoms will not have cancer.


    My family are telling me that I am always cranky. I don’t mean to be but I have been feeling so angry and not sure why?


    Anger is a normal emotion that everyone experiences now and then. Often anger is experienced when we feel powerless, mistreated, misunderstood, fearful or when we feel like things are out of our control.

    Given that cancer frequently makes people feel powerless, it’s no wonder that people affected by it experience feelings of anger.

    You may be angry about the impact the cancer has had on your life. It may have affected your ability to work, your relationships and family life. Anger can also hide other feelings such as fear and sadness.

    When you notice that you are feeling angry, take notice of your thoughts and how your body feels, it may be tense or restless. Consider stopping and asking yourself what is making you angry and then try some simple strategies such as: remove yourself from the situation giving you time to calm down; distract yourself; use humour to diffuse the situation; try to see the situation from a different view; choose to just let it go; talk to someone about how you feel, or try a calming technique such as slowing down your breathing or progressive muscle relaxation.

    Learning techniques to help you sleep better, manage stress and be more assertive may also help reduce your chances of becoming angry.

    Please see our 'Emotions and cancer' book for more information.


    Immunotherapy - What is it?


    Immunotherapy, also called biological therapies, is a treatment that strengthens the immune system to find and kill cancer cells. Immunotherapy may be used instead of, or together with, chemotherapy to target particular types of cancer cells while minimising harm to healthy cells.

    Immunotherapy can be given in different ways

    • tablets
    • injected into the vein
    • as a cream to rub onto the skin
    • administered directly into the bladder

    The main types of immunotherapy can be divided into treatments using monoclonal antibodies, nonspecific immunotherapies and cancer vaccines.

    For more information:

    Please see our 'Understanding Immunotherapy' fact sheet for more information.



    I am having cancer treatment and not sure when I will be able to return to work. I am worried about our financial situation. Are there supports available to help?


    A diagnosis of cancer and dealing with treatment can create a drain on your finances. The ability to keep working during this time is very individual and depends on the type of work you do, and the side effects experienced from treatment.

    Talk to a social worker at your treatment centre about the options available. Some people are able to access superannuation/insurance benefits or apply for Centrelink benefits to assist with their financial situation.

    Cancer Council SA has a Legal and Financial Planning Referral Service that may connect you with a financial planner or lawyer in your area. This service is means tested. If you would like more information or referral to the Legal and Financial Planning Referral Service please call
    13 11 20.

    Please see our books 'Cancer, work and you' and 'Cancer and your finances' for more information.


    What should men know about 'Men’s Cancers'?


    The most common cancers for men are prostate, bowel, lung and melanoma, and testicular cancer is one of the rarer forms of cancer affecting men.

    The good news is there are steps men can take to reduce their cancer risk or find cancer at a stage when treatment is more likely to succeed. 

    For more information see 'A brief look at Men’s Cancer'.


    My Doctor has recommended I consider enrolling within a clinical trial.  Can you explain to me what this means?


    By joining a clinical trial you contribute to help create new breakthroughs in cancer research. They are vital for improving cancer treatments and making them more available to patients. Clinical trials test and monitor interventions on a large number of people to ensure that improvements occur for many people and are not just effective for one. It is important to remember not all cancer patients are eligible to take part and they are not available for all types of cancer. However, by enrolling you do receive treatment that is at least the best available for your cancer and may well receive a treatment you would otherwise not be able to access. You will be carefully checked by the treatment team running the trial and your health may well improve because of this. You are also part of the worldwide effort to improve cancer treatment.

    Please see our book 'Understanding clinical trials and research' for more information. 


    What is scalp cooling and where can I get it?


    Scalp cooling is a method of cooling the scalp significantly during intravenous chemotherapy to try and prevent hair loss. The aim is to reduce the temperature in the hair follicles therefore reducing blood flow and minimising damage caused by the chemotherapy.

    A tight fitting cap is placed over your head and needs to be worn for a short time (usually 30 minutes) before the treatment commences, during treatment and for a period of time after your treatment. The caps can be on for variable times depending on the type of Chemotherapy drugs you have but generally no more than 3 hours in total. During this time, the cap is very cold to ensure the scalp is cooled effectively. Not all treatment centres offer this service. Ask if your treatment centre offers scalp cooling and if there is an added cost.


    I have completed treatment for cancer.  Do I need regular checkups?


    After your treatment has finished you may need regular check-ups. These will allow your doctor to monitor your health and well-being.

    The frequency of check-ups varies and will be different for each person. It depends on the cancer type, the treatment and any side effects and your general health.  After treatment is finished some people will have check-ups every three to six months for the first few years, then less frequently. Talk to your doctors about how often you need to see them.

    You may have follow-up appointments with the same doctor or team of doctors, who provided your cancer treatment. In addition you may see your GP, who can help monitor your overall health. This may include monitoring your blood pressure, cholesterol levels and weight. Some people only need to see their GP for follow-up care. Depending on where you live, this may be the most practical approach. The GP and specialist will communicate with each other about what is required.

    For more information call Cancer Council 13 11 20 or you can download the booklet Living well after cancer.


    I am 33 and have been diagnosed with breast cancer. I have had a mastectomy and am about to start chemotherapy. I am worried that my husband will no longer find me attractive, having only one breast and now about to lose my hair. What can I do to get through this?


    Communication with each other is very important. Find time to sit down together with no distraction and talk to each other about how you are feeling. You may be surprised at how he is feeling. We can offer counselling through Cancer Council SA to help both of you, either as a couple or individually, to help you work through the challenges your cancer has brought about. 

    Your cancer treatment has changed your physical appearance and this may have affected your self-confidence. To help your self-esteem you may like to attend the Look Good Feel Better programme. You can access this by calling 1800 650 960 or though their website www.lgfb.org.au.

    For more information call Cancer Council 13 11 20 or you can download the booklet Sexuality, Intimacy and Cancer.


    Massage - Is it safe?


    Some people worry that massage could spread cancer cells throughout the body via the lymphatic system (a part of the body’s immune system). However it is well documented that comfort-oriented massage does not contribute to the spread of cancer.

    Massaging a tumour site should be avoided as pressure on the affected area and underlying organs is not beneficial and is often uncomfortable.

    While massage is not a cure for cancer it may help diminish the side effects of conventional treatments and improve quality of life. Research shows that massage can help to reduce pain, fatigue, anxiety, depression and nausea. However, we would also recommend that you talk to your doctor before commencing treatment.

    It is recommended that you choose a therapist who is a member of a professional association that represents massage therapists, such as the Australian Traditional-Medicine Society, Australian Natural Therapists Association or Australian Association of Massage Therapists. These associations ensure that therapists who hold membership with them have received adequate professional training in massage, undertake continuing professional education and have a current first aid certificate and professional indemnity insurance policy.

    Useful links:

    For more information about massage call Cancer Council 13 11 20.


    Did you know that the screening for cancer of the cervix is changing in May 2017?


    Cervix Screening

    Based on new evidence and better technology, the National Cervical Screening Program will change to improve early detection and save more lives.

    From 1 May 2017:

    • the Pap smear will be replaced with the more accurate Cervical Screening Test
    • the time between tests will change from two to five years
    • women will be invited when they are due to participate via the National Cancer Screening Register
    • the age at which screening starts will increase from 18 years to 25 years
    • women aged 70 to 74 years will be invited to have an exit test.

    The new program will commence from 1 May 2017 when the new Cervical Screening Test will become available on the Medicare Benefits Schedule.

    The new Cervical Screening Test detects human papillomavirus (HPV) infection, which is the first step in developing cervical cancer. 99.7 per cent of all cervical cancers are caused by HPV infection.

    Persistent infection over many years with one or more cancer-causing types of HPV is the main cause of cervical cancer.

    The procedure for collecting the sample for HPV testing is the same as the procedure for having a Pap smear.

    For more information, see National Cervical Screening Program or call Cancer Council 13 11 20.


    How should I protect my skin with sunscreen to get the best results?


    Remember that no sunscreen – even if it is reapplied regularly - offers complete protection against UV radiation.  Always use sunscreen in conjunction with other forms of sun protection - Slip on a shirt, slap on a hat, slop on my sunscreen, slide on some sunnies, and seek shade.

    Some tips to get the best from your sunscreen:

    • Always apply sunscreen liberally to clean dry skin 20 minutes before going outside. Use at least a teaspoonful for each arm and leg and half a teaspoonful for your face, neck and ears.
    • You do not need to rub sunscreen into your skin until it disappears. The cream will be absorbed into your skin over the 20 minutes before you go out into the sun.
    • Reapply every two hours, or more regularly if you are perspiring or involved in water activities.
    • Patch test any new sunscreen on a small area of skin for reaction or allergies.
    • It is important to choose a maximum protection sunscreen, so look for one that is labelled SPF 30 of higher and broad spectrum. Sunscreen comes in a variety of different formulas (milk, lotion, cream), so choose one that suits you best.
    • Check the use by date on the sunscreen and don’t use a sunscreen that is out of date.
    • Always store your sunscreen under 25°c.

    Note: Children under 12 months should not be exposed to the direct sun when UV levels are 3 and above

    Please see links for further information:

    For more information on protecting your skin call Cancer Council 13 11 20.


    I am 60 years old. Should I be checked for prostate cancer?


    Prostate cancer is the most common cancer found in men and mainly affects men over 65 years. Apart from getting older, having a father or brother with prostate cancer increases your risk. Therefore it is important to talk to your doctor if you have a close family history of prostate cancer. Your doctor will discuss the role of further testing and help weigh up the benefits and potential harms involved in this.

    Early prostate cancer rarely causes symptoms, however if you do notice unexplained weight loss, feeling the frequent or sudden need to urinate, or pain in the lower back and pelvic area, see your doctor. These are not always a sign of prostate cancer, but are worth getting checked.

    A diagnosis of prostate cancer can have a major impact on a man’s life. Many prostate cancers grow slowly without requiring treatment or intervention and men can lead a normal life without the cancer having a significant impact. Other men, unfortunately, may have a more aggressive tumour requiring treatment.

    For more information on prostate cancer call Cancer Council 13 11 20 or you can download
    A brief look at men's cancers and Understanding Prostate Cancer.


    I've been told I need to have radiotherapy. How is radiotherapy treatment given?


    The aim of cancer treatment is to cure or provide control of disease or remission. The treatment options depend on the type of cancer you have, the stage and grade, your general health and personal preferences. Treatments for cancer include; surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, immunotherapy, and hormone therapy. Some cancers are treated using either one treatment or in combination.

    Radiotherapy can be given in two ways:

    1.      External radiotherapy

    2.      Internal radiotherapy

    External radiotherapy is given by a machine called a linear accelerator and aims a radiotherapy beam at the area of the body where the cancer is located. It is similar to having an x ray. You will lie on a treatment table underneath the machine. You will not see or feel the treatment, although the machine can be noisy.

    Internal radiotherapy is when a radiation source is placed inside the body, either injected through a vein, or taken by mouth. These therapies include brachytherapy- where a radiation source is placed inside the body into or near the cancer; radionuclide therapy, which is given as a capsule or liquid to swallow or via injection; and selective internal radiation therapy (SIRT) which uses pellets to treat cancer in the liver.

    For more information on radiotherapy call Cancer Council 13 11 20 or you can download the booklet Understanding radiotherapy.


    Is it safe to have sex whilst undergoing chemotherapy? 


    There is usually no medical reason to stop having sex during chemotherapy treatment. Cancer can’t be passed on to your partner during sex. Having chemotherapy can affect how you are feeling emotionally and physically, which can reduce your desire to have sex. However, changes don’t usually last too long.

    It is important to use reliable contraception during treatment to avoid pregnancy. It is also advisable to use condoms during the 48 hours after chemotherapy to decrease the risk of your partner being exposed to the chemotherapy drugs, which may be excreted in your body fluids.

    We would encourage you to talk to both your partner and your doctor about any concerns that you have.

    For more information on chemotherapy call Cancer Council 13 11 20 or you can download the booklets Sexuality, Intimacy and Cancer and Understanding chemotherapy.


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