19 Cancer Survivors Reveal the Symptoms That Saved Them
Don't miss the cancer symptoms that got these survivors diagnosed.
According to the National Cancer Institute, approximately 1,762,450 new cases of cancer were diagnosed in the United States in 2019 alone. And while some cancer symptoms may feel glaringly obvious, there are just as many that can be dismissed as signs of a run-of-the-mill virus. Others are so subtle they go completely unnoticed until a routine checkup reveals something's amiss. To keep you healthy and informed in the coming year, we've teamed up with 19 cancer survivors to reveal which symptoms led to their diagnoses.
Cynthia Swift, a three-time cancer survivor, was in her late 30s when she was first diagnosed with uterine cancer. However, the symptoms weren't glaringly obvious at first—in fact, she initially mistook them for something else entirely.
"I thought it was regular menstrual pain and cramping, but it got to the point that I had to go to the doctor," says Swift, who also had consistent bleeding that accompanied her discomfort. While her doctor also initially thought it was little more than menstrual pain or fibroids, a round of testing revealed a malignant tumor, and Swift's uterus was removed.
Swift later survived two bouts of breast cancer, noting that it was a regular mammogram that led to her initial diagnosis.
A Persistent Cough
While coughs may be little more than an annoyance most of the time, in some cases, they can lead to a life-changing diagnosis.
In 2012, at age 65, nurse Emily Ward found herself experiencing constant coughing that OTC treatments couldn't touch.
"It felt like I had something in my chest that needed to come up, but never did," Ward explains. "At times, I felt as if I was attempting to cough up a lung." While doctors initially believed she had walking pneumonia, a chest X-ray and subsequent CAT scan revealed fluid around her lungs and a collapsed lung. After more testing, Ward was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer often associated with asbestos exposure, which she has been treating through surgery, chemotherapy, and immunotherapy over the seven years since her initial diagnosis.
Swollen Lymph Nodes
Though swollen lymph nodes aren't an uncommon symptom of more minor viruses and infections, they can also be a manifestation of certain types of cancer.
Kalin Ivanov, 22, says that enlarged lymph nodes on the sides of his neck and under his left armpit were the first thing he noticed prior to his cancer diagnosis. In fact, he says there were pretty much no other symptoms of note.
Unfortunately, due to limitations of the medical facilities in his hometown of Pleven, Bulgaria, "they couldn't determine precisely the cancer stage and its exact type, so my treatment had to be continued in Turkey where they have better specialists," Ivanov explains. However, after receiving eight rounds of chemotherapy in a more advanced hospital setting, Ivanov says he's now cancer-free.
A Lump in the Neck
Having a frog in your throat isn't just a sign you're clamming up—for then-25-year-old Kimberly Lackey, owner of Empath Coaching, it was the first indication of her stage 2B Hodgkin's Lymphoma.
"I found a lump in my neck while I was sitting down on the couch at a family birthday party," says Lackey. "I watched presents get unwrapped and for some reason, I held the left side of my neck that day with my right hand."
It turned out that Lackey had a "grapefruit-sized" tumor in her chest. Additional symptoms, including extreme fatigue, pain and numbness in her arm, and skin rashes, all presented themselves soon after. After six months of ABVD chemotherapy, Kimberly was cancer-free and has been in remission for 14 years.
"In 2015, I was 44 years old and was really tired all the time," says chef Julia Helton of The Julia Kitchen. Fatigue ended up being the symptom that led to her breast cancer diagnosis, but she initially brushed off it off: "What woman over the age of 40 isn't drained all day, every day? I never thought it was something serious."
Helton says that while traditional breast self-exams hadn't revealed anything to her, eventually, leaning forward and compressing her breasts between her fingers led her to the lump. She was subsequently diagnosed with stage 2B PR/ER+ HERC breast cancer, for which she was successfully treated.
A Painless Testicular Lump
While many forms of cancer can cause significant discomfort, for some survivors, a painless mass is the defining symptom.
"In late September 2013, I noticed what felt like a lump on my left testicle," says Paul Strobel, website manager at eRide Hero. While Strobel says he had no discomfort or pain associated with the lump, he felt noticeably different in general, prompting him to see his doctor. Ultrasounds, CT scans, blood tests, and the eventual removal of one of his testicles confirmed that he did, in fact, have a seminoma tumor, for which he received three rounds of chemotherapy, entering remission in Aug. 2014.
A heavy blanket or warm summer nights could be behind those night sweats—but in some rare cases, the culprit is cancer.
"During the night, I would toss and turn, sweat through my sheets and have pain in my body," says TL Robinson, founder and CEO of The U.P. Eventually, the associated fatigue became too much to bear, and they saw a doctor about their symptoms.
However, while a GP initially dismissed Robinson's symptoms—which also included weight gain, hair loss, swelling of the face and neck, and brittle nails—as little more than signs of aging, their OB discovered a tumor in Robinson's neck, leading to a thyroid cancer diagnosis.
Sometimes, a routine checkup is all it takes to reveal symptoms of something more serious.
"My doctor was tapping on parts of my abdomen [and] he noticed that I had a lot of sensitivity throughout," says Robert Barrows, owner of R.M. Barrows, Inc. Advertising & Public Relations. Following a CT scan and biopsy, Barrows was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin's B-Cell Follicular Lymphoma in his groin and abdomen. After his diagnosis, when asked about other unusual symptoms he was having, Barrows could only think of two: night sweats and dry mouth. Fortunately, after six months of chemo, Barrows' cancer is now in remission.
Bleeding Between Periods
While many people experience irregular menstrual bleeding, spotting between periods can sometimes be a sign of cancer, as well. Freelance writer Cynthia "Cyn" MacGregor says that, after months of spotting, she sought medical help, leading to a colposcopy and eventual stage 2 cervical cancer diagnosis.
MacGregor underwent five weeks of external cobalt teletherapy, two intracavity radium insertions, and a total hysterectomy, and has now been cancer-free for 44 years.
A Loss of Appetite
A sudden loss of appetite was a key sign in getting Rebecca Adams' blood cancer diagnosed.
Following what she thought was a cold and related fatigue during the holiday season in 2014, Adams, the founder of My Alchemy Skincare, found herself struggling to eat.
"[I] lost my appetite, picking at my food, not wanting to eat, skipping meals—nothing sounded good," she explains, noting that she initially wondered if her symptoms could be related to mono. After she found herself shedding more than 20 pounds without trying, Adams went to the doctor, whose testing revealed not one, but two types of stage 4 blood cancers. The next day, Adams began chemotherapy.
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, 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.
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 Hovet.
A Burning Sensation
Lumps may be the most obvious signs of breast cancer, but they're far from the only ones.
Sara Olsher, founder of Mighty + Bright, describes being "saved by a sensation of milk being let down in my left breast." After speaking with her mother, who described feeling the same thing, calling it a "burning sensation," both women were diagnosed with ductal carcinoma, cancer of the milk ducts.
"This isn't a symptom that people talk about," says Olsher, who's since made it a goal of hers to raise awareness of the disease's lesser-known symptoms.
Gayle Carson, founder of Spunky Old Broad, was expecting to find broken ribs when she went to the doctor following a bout of serious rib pain. Instead, "after a bone scan, we discovered the tumors," says Carson.
It turned out to be Carson's fourth bout of breast cancer (her first three suspected breast cancers had been discovered during routine mammograms). Carson, who had previously had a mastectomy before her fourth cancer diagnosis, wants people to know that the cancer can occur even in those who've already undergone surgery. "It can happen even with the breasts gone," she says.
Blood In The Urine
"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.
However, instead of revealing injury or infection, the bladder scope and MRI Blumenfeld was treated with revealed something else: a small tumor on his kidney. Blumenfeld subsequently had his kidney removed and has spent the nearly 10 years since his initial diagnosis in what he describes as "excellent" health.
A Dent In The Breast
While many people think of lumps when they imagine breast cancer symptoms, for survivor Julie DiBene, it was a sudden dent in her breast that tipped her off.
DiBene, who is now cancer-free a decade after her initial diagnosis, explains that a tumor in her breast had been pulling her chest muscle inward, causing the dent. DiBene credits her insistence on getting medical attention with beating the disease.
"Getting to the doctor quickly saved me," she says.
A Breast Lump
While breastfeeding can cause changes in a person's breasts, cancer survivor and health coach Colleen Carlson wasn't confident when she was told the lump in her breast was little more than a clogged milk duct.
After insisting on additional tests, Carlson learned she had stage 3 breast cancer, a disease she found herself battling for more than 15 years before entering remission.
Jim Scott, 72, was told he was suffering from recurring UTIs before being officially diagnosed with bladder cancer.
However, when his symptoms didn't go away with treatment, he went back for more testing, leading to his eventual cancer diagnosis. While Scott is now in remission, he says that his diagnosis has given him new perspective on life, saying, "I feel so blessed to have gotten cancer."
Inconsistent Pap Smears
Cervical cancer survivor Jennifer Bright Reich, co-founder and CEO of Momosa Publishing, says it was inconsistent pap tests that led to her diagnosis. They were "normal, then not normal, then normal," she recalls. Luckily, Reich's doctor insisted upon following up testing that eventually led to her diagnosis. Today, she is cancer-free.