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Health Insights Illinois

Cancer awareness

Cancer awareness ribbons

February is National Cancer Prevention Month.

In the United States, cancer is the second leading cause of death. Illinois saw nearly 66,000 new cases among adults in 2020 for all cancer types. Let's learn about what cancer is, symptoms, risk factors, and prevention.

What is cancer?

It is a disease where cells in one part of the body grow at an uncontrollable rate and spread to other parts of the body. Cancer forms when damaged or abnormal cells multiply to form tumors (lumps of tissue) that damage healthy tissue. Cancerous tumors can invade and spread to other tissues and form new tumors in the body. Cancer doesn’t always appear as solid tumors, for example, leukemia (cancer in the blood), and there are over 100 types. 

Are there symptoms?

Symptoms vary depending on the type of cancer, and sometimes there may be no symptoms at all. It is recommended to plan a visit with your doctor if you experience any of the following symptoms:

  • Fatigue
  • Weight changes
  • Lumps or thickening of skin
  • Skin changes
  • Changes in bowel
  • Persistent cough
  • Trouble breathing
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Persistent indigestion                                
  • Muscle or joint pain
  • Fevers or night sweats
  • Unexplained bleeding or bruising

What are the risk factors?

Age – Most cancer cases are diagnosed among adults 65 and older, although it can appear at any age

Habits – Lifestyle habits can increase your risk. Examples include smoking, obesity, and sun exposure

Family history – Your family history can increase your risk for certain cancers through genes passed down

Health conditions – Some health conditions are associated with an increased risk of cancer

Your environment – Pollution, smoke, and chemicals in your environment

What can you do?

There are many lifestyle changes you can try to lower your risk. Starting sooner rather than later may have positive effects on your health. Plan a visit with your doctor to discuss how you can decrease your risk. Those include:

  • Stop smoking
  • Avoid excessive sun exposure
  • Eat a healthy diet
  • Regular exercise
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Drink alcohol in moderation
  • Schedule cancer screenings
  • Immunizations

Is everyone affected the same?

While everyone may have risks for cancer, some groups are affected more than others. For example, Black women are more likely to die from breast cancer than White women, despite having similar rates. Additionally, Hispanic and Black women have higher rates of cervical cancer compared to other groups. So why do differences like this exist? Some factors may be access to healthcare services, exposure to toxins in the environment, and other barriers.

What can I do next?

Not sure what your risks are or what to do next? Speak with your doctor to receive appropriate care if you feel any symptoms or to learn more about your risks.


Understanding cancer

National Cancer Institute

Mayo Clinic


About the Author

Monserrat Carrillo-Rodriguez is a social and community health specialist. The Integrated Health Disparities program tackles health issues with an integrated lens of physical, mental, and community health providing programs and resources to address health inequities. She has experience working with diverse audiences both in Chicago and Champaign focused on disease prevention and health education. Monserrat is a two-time graduate of the University of Illinois, earning a bachelor’s degree in community health in 2020 and a master’s degree in public health in 2021. She works to reduce the burden of health disparities among vulnerable populations through evidence-based health behavior interventions and health education.