Cancer Survivors Reveal the Symptoms That Saved Them

"The best thing people can do is advocate for themselves."

habits after 40

Considering that approximately 18 million people worldwide have been diagnosed with the disease in the past year alone, there's a good chance you or someone you know has battled cancer. Luckily, as cancer incidences increase, there are new, innovative, and highly effective treatments. But those treatments are always more effective the earlier cancer is detected.

While many symptoms can go unseen for months—or even years—cancer is possible to detect with a keen eye and sometimes, a gut feeling. We talked to cancer survivors who listened to their bodies and found symptoms early enough to beat the disease. Of course, no two journeys are the same, but these cancer survivors all had the tenacity to advocate for their own health, refusing to back down, even when others doubted them. Read on to find out what these cancer survivors noticed that ultimately saved their lives.

Drastic Weight Loss

weight loss motivation

Jessica Valence, a sales operations manager at GRYT Health, was diagnosed with colon cancer when she was only 25 years old. Despite blood tests initially coming back normal, she remembers, "I was extremely exhausted, my hair was thinning, [and] I was losing weight." Following her gut, Valence called numerous doctors until she found one that would perform more tests to see what was going on. "By the time that they diagnosed me three months later, they told me I had two months to live without treatment," Valence says. That was six years ago.

While fatigue, thinning hair, and weight loss are common signs of cancer, survivor Valence says they're often overlooked because they allow for many alternate explanations. "The best thing people can do is advocate for themselves," she urges. 

Pelvic Pain

pelvis fracture woman getting examined by doctor x ray

Kristen Hovet, the founding editor of BRIGID Magazine, was almost 35 when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. "I was having pelvic pain that was quite severe," she explains. "It prompted me to go for a pap smear and be on top of follow-up appointments."

After the source of her pain was revealed to be cancer, Hovet underwent a hysterectomy, lymph node removal, Cisplatin chemotherapy, and pelvic radiation. She has been cancer free for three years now. "The pain saved me," says the cancer survivor of her original symptom. 

Abdominal Sensitivity

Rumbling stomach, man holding his stomach in pain

"At a routine annual check-up, my doctor noticed some sensitivity in various parts of my abdomen," says Robert Barrows of R.M. Barrows, Inc., an advertising and public relations firm. Several tests later, Barrows learned he had non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

While he had occasionally been experiencing night sweats, dry mouth, and fatigue, as well, then 67-year-old Barrows didn't think much of these symptoms, chalking them up to his age. Fortunately, because he and his doctor caught the lymphoma early, Barrows' cancer was in full remission after six months of chemo.

Burning Breast Sensation

Breast check

Sarah Olsher, founder of Mighty + Bright, describes being "saved by a sensation of milk being let down in my left breast." When she spoke with her mother about it, she said she'd felt the same thing, describing it as a "burning sensation." Both women were diagnosed with ductal carcinoma, cancer of the milk duct.

"This isn't a symptom that people talk about," Olsher says, which is why she feels it's important to raise awareness. 

What Feels Like Broken Ribs

breast cancer doctor

"What saved me is the pain I was having, which I thought were broken ribs," says breast cancer survivor Dr. Gayle Carson, founder of Spunky Old Broad. "After a bone scan, we discovered the tumors."

It turned out to be Carson's fourth bout of breast cancer (she learned about the first three during regularly scheduled mammograms). "And yes, I have had a double mastectomy. So it can happen even with the breasts gone," she adds. 

Blood In The Urine

man on couch at doctor's office - male health concerns

"My doctor had bugged me about getting the microscopic blood in my urine checked out," says cancer survivor Jeff Blumenfeld of Blumenfeld and Associates, a marketing public relations firm. The condition is called hematuria, and Blumenfeld agreed to get tested via a bladder scope and an MRI. The results showed that the source of the bleeding was a small tumor on his kidney. Blumenfeld quickly underwent a life-saving nephrectomy, and almost ten years later, he's happy to report that he's in "excellent" health. He continues to monitor his kidneys regularly.

A "Dent" In The Breast

When it comes to cancer symptoms, most people think of lumps. For cancer survivor Julie DiBene, however, the warning sign was "an odd dent that appeared suddenly on the side of [her] left breast." It turned out, an underlying tumor had begun pulling on DiBene's chest muscle, causing it to contract and result in a dent. "Getting to the doctor quickly saved me," DiBene explains. Nine years later, she remains cancer free. 

Bleeding Between Periods

woman at doctor's office - female health concerns

Writer Cynthia MacGregor noticed she'd been spotting between periods, so she visited a local abortion clinic in the hopes they'd do a dilation and curettage and then send her home. Instead, "they recognized I had cervical cancer and sent me to a doctor," MacGregor recalls. She underwent a total abdominal hysterectomy, five weeks of external cobalt teletherapy, and two intracavity radium insertions. Due to her early vigilance, MacGregor can now call herself a cancer survivor.

Breast Lump


Cancer survivor and health coach Colleen Carlson was only 26 when she noticed a lump on her breast. Since she had just been breast feeding, her physicians told her that it was a clogged milk duct, claiming she was too young to have cancer. But Carlson wasn't convinced. After insisting on additional tests, she learned she had stage 3 breast cancer and she battled the disease for more than 15 years. Carlson is soon entering her fifth decade and her cancer is now in the rear view.



When Kimberly Lackey, founder of Empath Coaching, got married at 25 years old, she was unable to hold her bouquet due to numbness in her arm. A few months earlier, she'd noticed a lump protruding from her neck, so Lackey went to see her primary care physician after the big day. Soon, she was diagnosed with lymphoma and she underwent "a variety of natural healing methods" in response. Along with a new mental outlook, Lackey beat cancer, and recently celebrated her 40th birthday. 

Testicular Lump

man getting bad news at a doctor checkup {priorities after 50}

"Feeling a lump in my testicle is what helped me discover my cancer in the early stages," says Mike Craycraft, founder of the Testicular Cancer Society. That was nearly twelve years ago. "Changes in lump sizes and firmness are the major early warning signs of testicular cancer," he explains. "[That's] why testicular self-exams are so important."

Abnormal Pap Smears

Woman with Doctor

Cervical cancer survivor Jennifer Bright Reich, co-founder and CEO of Momosa Publishing, says it was inconsistent Pap tests that led to her diagnosis: "normal, then not normal, then normal," she recalls. Reich's doctor "followed her gut feeling that something wasn't right." And thankfully, she's now cancer free.

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