One of the tricky things about detecting and diagnosing some early-stage cancers is that, often, 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 who 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.
Snyder discusses what signs and symptoms you should watch out for.
What are some general signs and symptoms of cancer?
While all of the symptoms below could very well be benign or unrelated to cancer, Snyder suggests that they definitely be brought to the attention of your doctor.
A lump under your skin
If you notice other changes to your breasts like dimpling, discoloration or discharge from your nipples, talk to your doctor. It could be a sign of breast cancer.
Moles that change in appearance
Make sure you perform a skin check on yourself regularly. Pay attention to any moles that are asymmetric or change in shape, color or size as that could be a sign of skin cancer like melanoma.
Use this guide when doing a skin check:
- Asymmetry. The mole is asymmetrical — one half looks different from the other half.
- Border. The mole has a border that looks irregular, scalloped or fuzzy, instead of a well-defined edge.
- Color. A mole has multiple colors, including brown, black, tan, pink, red or even white and blue.
- Diameter. A mole is bigger than six millimeters across (roughly the size of a pencil eraser).
- Evolution. The mole is evolving — changing color, size or shape.
Frequent fevers or infections
If you tend to have infection after infection or are constantly dealing with fevers, 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, then it’s time to talk to your doctor.
You’ve dropped a few pounds without trying. Should you be worried? It’s best to check with your doctor and explain what symptoms you’re experiencing like a 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 that feeling, as well as trouble swallowing, lasts for more than two weeks, it can be a sign of cancers of the mouth, throat or esophagus.
Changes to your mouth
Pay attention to any sores or lesions in your mouth that cause pain. If they’re persistent, it could be a sign of oral cancers.
This is especially common in those who smoke or consume alcohol heavily.
Bumping into the edge of the table may result in a bruise — that’s normal.
But if you have certain blood cancers, you may start to notice bruises in abnormal spots on your body.
Unusual bleeding or discharge
Talk to your doctor if you experience odorous 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.
While you may feel bloated during your period, but if you’re bloated for more than two weeks, it can be a sign of ovarian cancer or gastrointestinal cancers.
Chronic cough or hoarseness
A chronic cough or hoarseness — that lasts more than two weeks — could be a sign of lung cancer.
And if you’re coughing up blood or also experience chest pain or shortness of breath, don’t wait to reach out to your doctor.
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.
Could it be cancer, or is it something else?
Symptoms like unexplained weight loss or changes in your bathroom habits can have many causes by many different things.
“That’s why it’s important to talk to your doctor about any symptoms that don’t go away or last more than two weeks,” says Snyder.
How can I check myself for cancer?
Early detection is key in detecting cancer before symptoms appear.
Regularly attending cancer screenings
For several forms of cancers, there are screenings that can detect them before any symptoms occur. It’s recommended that you get these regular screenings:
- Yearly screening mammograms beginning at age 40 for people assigned female at birth (AFAB) with an average risk of developing breast cancer.
- Pap test every three years for people AFAB between the ages of 21 and 65.
- HPV (human papillomavirus) test for those between the ages of 25 and 65 every five years.
- Annual stool tests starting at 45 for people at average risk of colorectal cancer.
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.
When to see your doctor
It’s important to pay attention to your body and how you feel. While these symptoms are also commonly associated with several other causes and conditions, it’s vital that you speak to a doctor, especially if symptoms are persistent.
Your doctor can run tests, including a biopsy, if necessary, where a piece of tissue is removed and tested.
“The bottom line with any of these symptoms that may be worrisome is for you to work with a doctor to help you sort out concerning symptoms,” advises Snyder.