20 cancer symptoms we often ignore
Sure, we all know we need to get cancer screenings periodically. But in between doctor's appointments, we often forget to pay attention to what our bodies may be trying to tell us.
Here, Dr. Mahendra Gupta, cancer specialist with Innovis Health in Fargo, and the editors of Caring.com share a list of 25 potentially life-threatening symptoms that we tend to overlook.
Before reading through the list, we want to remind you that having these symptoms doesn't mean you have cancer. But if you experience any of these sometimes common ailments, you might want to get screened for cancer.
Weight loss: A sudden, unexplained dip in weight can actually be an early signal of colon or other digestive cancers - or even a later sign of cancer that has spread to the liver.
Extreme fatigue: Everyone is tired these days. But if the tiredness is so profound it prevents you from doing the smallest tasks - and no amount of sleep helps - it's time to see a doctor.
Fever: Frequent, unexplained fevers or infections can indicate leukemia, a cancer of the blood cells that starts in the bone marrow, according to Caring.com. Leukemia causes the marrow to produce abnormal white blood cells, which sap the body's ability to fight infections.
Pain: Unfortunately, pain is often a symptom of later-stage cancer. But pain may also be the only symptom of certain hard-to-detect cancers such as brain, pancreatic and bone cancer, Gupta says.
Also, if you experience an unusual headache - something unlike any headache you've ever had before - see a doctor.
Mouth sores: People will often minimize mouth sores, saying "Oh, my dentures don't fit right," Gupta says. But mouth sores that don't heal can indicate cancer - especially if you smoke, chew tobacco or drink alcohol.
Change in voice: If the quality of your voice changes for no reason - for instance, you develop chronic hoarseness - you should be checked for laryngeal cancer. It's common in people who smoke and drink alcohol, Gupta says.
Difficulty swallowing: If you experience chronic sore throat, the sensation of food getting stuck in your throat or the need to clear your throat all the time, it could be an early symptom of throat or esophageal cancer.
Swollen lymph node: Enlarged lymph nodes indicate changes in the lymphatic system, which can be a sign of cancer, according to Caring.com. The neck, underarm and groin area should be periodically checked for lumps, Gupta says.
Persistent cough: Several types of cancer, including lung cancer, can be masked by bronchitis-like symptoms, according to Caring.com. If the cough persists for more than six weeks - or repeatedly goes away and returns - see a doctor, Gupta says. Some lung-cancer patients also report feeling chest pain that extends up into the shoulder, wheezing and shortness of breath.
Breast lump or nipple discharge: Women should do self-examinations each month so they are aware of any sudden changes. Be especially vigilant for suspicious lumps, nodules, swelling, redness, nipple discharge or skin changes (cellulite-like dimpling; itchy, scaly, crusty spots on nipples), Gupta says. An inverted or flattened nipple is another common sign of breast cancer.
Persistent heartburn: It's one thing to have heartburn after pigging out on chili-cheese fries; quite another to habitually pop Tums like Tic-Tacs. Frequent heartburn, an acidic taste in the throat or a constant low-level feeling of pain in the chest after eating can signal GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease). GERD may trigger a condition called Barrett's esophagus, which can be a precursor to esophageal cancer, Gupta says.
Recent change in bowel habits: Unusual constipation or diarrhea - which can't be linked to flu or foodborne illness - is one of the few early indicators of colon or rectal cancer, especially if they last longer than a few days, Gupta says. Blood in the stool - often dismissed as being caused by hemorrhoids - can signal colorectal cancer.
Unexplained back pain: We often shrug off back pain as a pulled muscle or slipped disk. In fact, unexplained, persistent back pain can be more serious. Pain in the lower, right-hand side can signal ovarian or liver cancer. Pain in the back and hips can be a sign of prostate cancer, while pain in the upper back can signal lung or breast cancer. Pain in the upper abdomen and back is one of the few early signs of pancreatic cancer.
Bloating/abdominal weight gain: Women tend to ignore this symptom, attributing it to PMS or simple weight gain. But if the stomach swelling comes on suddenly - and continues on and off for a long period of time - it could indicate ovarian cancer. Feeling "full" or unable to eat or experiencing pelvic pain can be other symptoms of this hard-to-detect cancer.
Vaginal spotting/bleeding in post-menopausal women: This may be a warning sign of uterine cancer and should be evaluated immediately. Unfortunately, some older patients are too embarrassed to report bleeding to their doctors, Gupta says.
Difficulty urinating: The most common early sign of prostate problems is increased frequency of urination, hesitation and producing a weaker stream than normal. Also see a doctor if you experience pain or burning during urination.
Blood in urine: Blood in the urine can be a sign of prostate or bladder cancer. But this isn't always as obvious as you might think. Urine that is pink or smoky-brown could actually contain blood, Gupta says.
Testicular lump or swelling: A painless lump or unexplained swelling - especially in young men - can indicate cancer. Unfortunately, men often resist bringing up this issue with their health care provider, Gupta says.
Changes in fingernails: A black/brown streak or dot under the nail can point toward skin cancer, while newly discovered "clubbing" - fingers enlarged at the end, with nails curving over tips - can indicate lung cancer, according to Caring.com. Pale or white nails can signal problems with liver function.
Appearance of a new mole or change in existing mole: Look for skin changes, such as moles that become asymmetric, develop irregular borders, change in color or increase in diameter. Also keep an eye out for small, waxy lumps or dry, scaly patches. A significant other can periodically check out back moles for us, he adds. Some people have so many moles they can barely keep track of them; in those instances, Gupta suggests periodically taking snapshots to help monitor changes.
Innovis Health's Dr. Gupta stresses that our best defense against cancer remains early detection through yearly screenings. In general, we should receive:
Pap smears every year after age 18; more frequently for women who have irregular test results.
Colonoscopies every year after age 50; earlier for patients who have a family history of colon cancer.
Mammograms every year after age 40; earlier and more frequently for women with a family history of breast cancer.
PSAs (prostate cancer screenings) according to your physician's recommendations.