One of the tricky things about detecting and diagnosing some early-stage cancers is that, oftentimes, they don’t actually cause any symptoms, and if they do, they’re symptoms that are also commonly associated with a number of other causes and conditions.
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This is one reason why it’s important for people to establish a primary care doctor that they visit annually, says cancer care nurse Josette Snyder, BSN, MSN, AOCN. A doctor who knows your history and has a running record of your health can help determine whether changes to your body warrant testing or a visit to a specialist.
While all of the symptoms below could very well be benign or unrelated to cancer, she suggests that they definitely be brought to the attention of your doctor.
- A lump under your skin. It’s often impossible to tell a benign cyst from a malignant tumor just by looking at it, so have any lumps on the breast, neck or genital areas checked out.
- A wart or mole that changes in appearance. Lesions that are asymmetric or changing in shape, color or size should be looked at by a doctor.
- A significant change in bathroom habits. This includes more frequent urination or always feeling like you have to go, or changes in your bowel habits (diarrhea or constipation) as well as blood in the stool or urine.
- Difficulty swallowing. Cancers of the mouth, throat or esophagus can cause this symptom.
- A sore that won’t heal. Or one that heals and then bleeds again.
- Unusual bleeding or discharge. Talk to your doctor if you experience spontaneous nipple discharge or odorous vaginal discharge.
- Chronic cough or hoarseness — especially if you’re coughing up blood or also experience chest pain or shortness of breath.
If you experience any of these symptoms, be sure to log them in some way, so that you can have a thorough conversation with your doctor about how often symptoms occur and how long they’ve been happening.
For several forms of cancers, we have screenings that can detect them before any symptoms occur. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends these regular screenings:
- Mammograms every other year for women between the ages of 50 and 74.
- Pap test or HPV test every three years for women between the ages of 21 and 65.
- Annual stool tests between the ages of 50 and 75; potential other forms of screening for colon cancer every five to ten years.
- Possible periodic PSA-based screening for men between the ages of 55 to 69, pending a thorough conversation with a doctor about the potential benefits and harms of screening.
- Annual low-dose computed tomography for adults between the ages of 55 and 80 years old with a history of smoking who are either still smoking or have quit within the last 15 years.
Most health insurance plans cover at least some preventive screenings, so check with your insurance provider. There may also be free screenings offered by hospitals or organizations in your community.