One of the tricky things about detecting and diagnosing certain cancers at an early stage is that often they don’t cause any symptoms, and if they do, those are symptoms that are also commonly associated with a a number of other causes and conditions. .
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That’s one of the reasons it’s important for people to establish a primary care doctor they visit each year, says oncology nurse Josette Snyder, BSN, MSN, AOCN.
A doctor who knows your history and has a running record of your health can help you determine if changes in your body warrant testing or a visit to a specialist.
Snyder discusses the signs and symptoms you need to watch out for.
What are the general signs and symptoms of cancer?
While all of the symptoms below could very well be mild or unrelated to cancer, Snyder suggests they should definitely be brought to your doctor’s attention.
A ball under your skin
It’s often impossible to tell a benign cyst from a malignant one just by looking at it, so be sure to get any lumps on your chest, neck, or genitals checked.
If you notice any other changes to your breasts, such as dimpling, discoloration, or discharge from your nipples, talk to your doctor. It could be a sign of breast cancer.
Moles that change appearance
Be sure to perform a regular skin exam on yourself. Watch out for moles that are asymmetrical or change shape, color or size, as this could be a sign of skin cancer such as melanoma.
Use this guide when performing a skin exam:
- Asymmetry. The mole is asymmetrical – one half looks different from the other half.
- Border. The mole has a border that looks jagged, scalloped, or fuzzy, instead of a well-defined edge.
- Color. A mole has many colors, including brown, black, tan, pink, red, or even white and blue.
- Diameter. A mole measures more than six millimeters in diameter (about the size of a pencil eraser).
- Evolution. The mole evolves — changing color, size or shape.
Frequent fevers or infections
If you tend to get infection after infection or constantly have a fever, it could be a sign that your immune system is compromised by lymphoma or leukemia.
Changes in bathroom habits
We all have diarrhea or constipation from time to time. But if you notice a significant change in how often you go to the bathroom, it’s time to talk to your doctor.
This may include more frequent urination or the feeling that you always have to go, as well as blood in your stool or urine. These changes can signal colon, prostate, or bladder cancer.
You lost a few pounds without trying. Should we be worried? It is best to consult your doctor and explain the symptoms you are experiencing, such as loss of appetite.
Unexplained weight loss could indicate that certain types of cancer have spread.
That feeling that food is stuck in your throat? It happens.
But if this sensation, along with difficulty swallowing, lasts for more than two weeks, it may be a sign of mouth, throat or esophageal cancer.
Changes in your mouth
Pay attention to any sores or lesions in your mouth that are causing pain. If they are persistent, it could be a sign of oral cancer.
This is especially common in those who smoke or consume a lot of alcohol.
Bumping against the edge of the table can cause a bruise – this is normal.
But if you have certain blood cancers, you may start noticing bruising in abnormal places on your body.
Unusual bleeding or discharge
Talk to your doctor if you experience smelly vaginal discharge. Your doctor may want to screen for ovarian cancer.
Also, if you experience persistent pain and changes in your menstrual cycle, it could be a sign of cervical, uterine, or ovarian cancer.
Although you may feel bloated during your period, but if you are bloated for more than two weeks, it can be a sign of ovarian cancer or gastrointestinal cancer.
Chronic cough or hoarseness
A chronic cough or hoarseness – lasting longer than two weeks – could be a sign of lung cancer.
And if you’re coughing up blood or also experiencing chest pain or shortness of breath, don’t wait to contact your doctor.
If you experience any of these symptoms, be sure to write them down in some way, so you can have a thorough conversation with your doctor about how often the symptoms appear and how long they last.
Could it be cancer or is it something else?
Symptoms like unexplained weight loss or changes in your toileting habits can have many different causes.
“That’s why it’s important to talk to your doctor about any symptoms that don’t go away or last longer than two weeks,” says Snyder.
How can I check myself for cancer?
Early detection is essential to find cancer before symptoms appear.
Regularly attend cancer screenings
For several forms of cancer, there are screenings that can detect them before the appearance of any symptoms. It is recommended that you perform these regular screenings:
- Annual screening mammograms from the age of 40 for people designated female at birth (AFAB) with an average risk of developing breast cancer.
- Pap test every three years for AFAB people aged 21 to 65.
- HPV (human papillomavirus) testing for people aged 25 to 65 every five years.
- Annual stool tests from age 45 for people at average risk of colorectal cancer.
Most health insurance plans cover at least some preventative screenings, so check with your insurer. There may also be free screenings offered by hospitals or organizations in your community.
When to see your doctor
It is important to pay attention to your body and how you feel. Although these symptoms are also commonly associated with several other causes and conditions, it is essential that you speak to a doctor, especially if symptoms persist.
Your doctor may perform tests, including a biopsy, if needed, where a piece of tissue is removed and tested.
“The main thing with any of these symptoms that can be concerning is that you work with a doctor to help you sort through the symptoms,” Snyder advises.