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Frequently asked questions

Cancer is complex, and you may have a lot of questions. The following are some commonly asked questions and answers about cancer.

What is cancer? - He aha te mate pukupuku?

The human body is made up of billions of cells that group together to form organs and tissue such as the skin, bones, muscles, lungs and kidneys.

Typically, cells grow and over time they die and are replaced by new cells. Cancer occurs when abnormal cells begin to multiply and divide without stopping and spread into surrounding tissues or other parts of the body.

When these groups of abnormal cells form lumps or growths, they are called tumours. They behave differently depending on whether they are cancerous (malignant), non-cancerous (benign) or pre-cancerous.

Can I avoid cancer? – Ka taea te pare i te mate pukupuku?

Around one-third of cancers are preventable. A healthier life and looking after your body are essential to reduce the likelihood of getting cancer. However, not all cancers can be prevented. There are some things you can do to detect cancer early so that treatment can be more successful.

See Healthy living for more information.

Can cancer spread? – Ka taea te mate pukupuku te horapa haere?

Most cancers start in an organ or tissue. This is called primary cancer or a primary site.

In some cases, cancer cells can spread to other areas of the body from where it began. This is called a metastasis or secondary cancer. This is when cancer cells spread via blood vessels or the lymphatic system (small tubes or vessels in the body) to other parts of the body.

Secondary cancers keep the name of the primary cancer. For example, breast cancer that has spread to the liver is called metastatic breast cancer.

When should I see my doctor? – Āwhea me haere ki te tākuta?

It is important to be aware of your body and how you normally feel on a day to day basis. There are many different signs and symptoms of cancer including:

  • Persistent pain
  • Fatigue (feeling tired all the time)
  • Unexplained and/or sudden weight changes
  • Persistent cough
  • Skin changes
  • Lumps or bumps
  • Unusual bleeding (e.g. rectal bleeding) or coughing up blood.

It is important to remember that experiencing a sign or symptom doesn't mean you have cancer. However, if you are concerned about anything, it is important to talk to your doctor about it as soon as possible. Finding cancer early usually means the treatment will be more successful.

Your doctor will talk to you about any physical exams or tests you might need if it is required. Write any questions down and take it with you to your appointment and your doctor will be able to answer them. You can also take a support person with you too (e.g. whānau member or friend).

Learn the signs and symptoms of these cancers: (link to signs and symptoms section of relevant pages)

  • Bowel cancer
  • Breast cancer
  • Prostate cancer
  • Melanoma cancer
  • Cervical cancer
  • Lung cancer
What happens after I am diagnosed with cancer? - Ka ahatia i muri i tāku whakatau māuiui?

Each person deals with a cancer diagnosis differently, and every journey through it is unique to the individual and their whānau. Te Aho o Te Kahu provides information that helps you make the best possible decisions for your health and whānau.

You may want to talk about it with someone you are comfortable with. There are many support services that you can contact too (see support and rehab page).

You might have to go for further tests to find out more information about your cancer. This information will be used when making your treatment plan.

You may want to consider advance care planning. Advance care planning is a way to help you think about, talk about and share what matters to you for your future health care. To help you and your whānau start a conversation about it, click here.

Learn more about what happens after diagnosis for these common cancers: (link to the relevant section for cancer type)

  • Bowel cancer
  • Breast cancer
  • Prostate cancer
  • Melanoma cancer
  • Cervical cancer
  • Lung cancer
What will my treatment involve? – He aha te āhuatanga o taku mahere whakapakari pātū?

Your cancer care team or specialist will discuss your treatment plan with you and what it will involve, such as what type of treatment you will receive and how often you will receive it. You can always bring a support person (e.g. whānau or friend) with you to these appointments. If you have any questions, your cancer care team or specialist are your best advisors.

Below is some general information on different types of treatment. The kind of treatment you receive will depend on several factors, including your specific cancer and needs.


Cancer surgery is when a surgeon removes the tumour from your body. The specific type of surgery received depends on the type of cancer. Always ask your surgeon about what to expect and any other questions you might have about the surgery.

Radiotherapy (radiation therapy)

Radiotherapy treats cancer by using x-rays or other types of radiation. There are two main types of radiotherapy:

External beam radiotherapy

External beam radiotherapy (EBRT) is the most common form of radiotherapy. Beams are generated by a machine called a linear accelerator (also known as LINACs), and are specifically targeted at the cancer being treated, so other surrounding tissues are not too affected.

There are several types of EBRT. Your cancer care team will discuss this with you, including how much radiation is needed to treat your cancer and how often you need to get it.

You won't feel anything during treatment, but you will hear the machine make sounds.


Brachytherapy is a procedure that involves radiation delivered in a small source (smaller than a grain of rice) that is implanted near or in the cancer.

For some people, the small source of radiation will be put in the body for a short amount of time. Others will have a small source of radiation put in their body permanently. Once the small source of radiation has been put in the body, the person can go home.


Chemotherapy (also known as 'chemo') is a type of treatment that uses drugs to destroy the cancer or to slow growth of cancer.

Chemotherapy is used to treat a wide range of cancers. Sometimes this is the only treatment needed, but it is often used with other cancer treatment types such as surgery and radiation therapy.


Immunotherapy uses drugs that help the body's immune system to attack the cancer. The immune system fights infections and abnormal cell development in the body.

Immunotherapy can give the immune system a boost to work against the cancer or to remove barriers to the immune system attacking the cancer.

Targeted therapy

Targeted therapy uses a drug that attacks specific characteristics of the cancer to try and stop the cancer cells from growing and spreading.

Hormone therapy

Some cancers, such as breast, prostate and uterine cancers, use hormones that can encourage the cancer to grow. Hormone therapy targets these hormones to slow down or stop the growth of cancer.

Complementary therapy

Complementary therapies can be used alongside conventional medical treatments. They can help people feel better and improve their quality of life. Some complementary therapies include:

  • Rongoā Māori
  • Pacific traditional healing
  • acupuncture
  • herbal medicine
  • massage therapy.

Complementary therapies might also help people to cope with cancer symptoms and the side effects of cancer treatment better.

Rongoā Maori Providers

Rongoā Māori is a body of knowledge, systems and practices that enhances Māori wellbeing. Rongoā Māori differs from a Western medical paradigm in that it incorporates holistic views of health including whānau, hinengaro (mind), wairua (soul), mauri (life essence), ngā atua and te taiao (the environment).

There are many providers across the country that deliver rongoā services. These services can include mirimiri (massage), karakia (pastoral support) and whitiwhiti kōrero (cultural support).

To contact a Rongoā Maori provider, click here or contact the Māori health team at your local hospital.

Palliative care

Palliative care focuses on providing quality of life for as long as possible. It can be offered at the hospital, rest home, hospice or home.

Palliative care can help people manage their cancer symptoms and side effects of treatment. Palliative care can also help with people's physical, practical, emotional and spiritual needs.

What happens after I finish treatment?

When you finish your treatment, you may experience lots of different emotions. Each person will have different needs. It is common to feel tired, have trouble sleeping and experience side effects from treatment. There are many support services that you can to help you understand and cope with the changes. See Support and Rehabilitation for more information.

Your specialist will talk to you about having follow up tests to monitor your health. This is a follow-up and surveillance plan. It may involve you seeing a combination of your specialist and your General Practitioner.