20 Most Commonly Overlooked Cancer Symptoms
Catch these subtle symptoms before they catch up with you.
Approximately one in three Americans will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime. However, despite the prevalence of the disease, many of its symptoms are just subtle enough that people don’t realize there’s something amiss.
Unfortunately, while overall cancer survivorship rates are steadily increasing, research from the National Cancer Institute indicates cancer diagnosis rates are increasing, too. The number of people diagnosed with metastasized lung, colon, prostate, cervical, and uterine cancers is on the rise. And other other cancers show no sign of fading away: nearly 1 million people annually are diagnosed with cancers of the thyroid, kidney, or pancreas. (In recent sad news, TV’s Alex Trebek, the beloved host of Jeopardy! for 35 years running, just revealed his late-stage pancreatic cancer diagnosis.)
Worse yet, due to the subtlety of certain cancers’ symptoms, many patients aren’t diagnosed until it’s too late. Before you let a cancer diagnosis completely change your life, make sure you know these commonly-overlooked cancer symptoms.
Though you might be thrilled to see the number on the scale go down, if you’re not actively trying to lose weight, it could be a symptom that you’re dealing with cancer.
“Many patients I see present with weight loss of 10 or 15 pounds,” says Dr. Anton Bilchik, MD, PhD, professor of surgery and chief of gastrointestinal research at the John Wayne Cancer Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. “They don’t pay attention to it because they feel good about losing weight. The concern is when somebody’s not trying to lose weight, but are losing anyway.”
Is that bloated belly the result of those beers you drank last night? If your stomach seems to be persistently protruding out of virtually nowhere, it’s time to talk to your doctor. Dr. Bilchik says that abdominal bloating is a common symptom of pancreatic cancer, and can also be associated with cancers of the uterus, colon, liver, and stomach.
Loss of appetite
While many people would gladly pay for a pill that knocks out their appetite for good, if you’re suddenly disinterested in food, it’s important to speak to a medical professional about your symptoms. “Another concern is when people suddenly lose their appetite: we all like food,” says Dr. Bilchik. “If someone suddenly doesn’t have an appetite for food or wine, there’s generally a reason. That in itself may warrant a workup.”
That cramping in your stomach may be more than just the result of having a few too many cheat days. “If you don’t typically have an issue with bloating and abdominal pain that’s not getting better, that’s a warning signal,” says Dr. Bilchik.
While it’s estimated that up to 20 percent of the population will suffer from acid reflux at one point or another, a sudden onset of the condition without any changes in your diet merits a trip to the doctor, according to Bilchik. Tumors of the stomach, esophagus, and liver can all cause sudden-onset acid reflux, so before you bust out the Tums, call a doctor.
The golden tan you got on vacation might have you feeling like a million bucks, but if that hue is more orange or yellow than brown, you could be dealing with a serious health issue, specifically that a tumor is blocking the bile duct and causing bile to enter the bloodstream. “That’s typically a bad sign because that usually indicates a more advanced cancer,” says Dr. Bilchik. “However, some people do have smaller cancers that block the bile duct, too, and they can be treated with surgery.”
Yellowing in the eyes
If the whites of your eyes have taken on a strangely golden hue, jaundice—potentially caused by cancer—could be to blame. Jaundice is most often caused by cancers of the liver, pancreas, and colon, none of which can wait for treatment.
While coughs are hardly uncommon, often due to a change in the weather or a run-of-the-mill cold, if you have one that simply doesn’t seem to go away, it’s time to get a medical professional involved in your care. According to Dr. Santosh Kesari, MD, PhD, a board-certified neurologist and neuro-oncologist and chair and professor of the Department of Translational Neurosciences and Neurotherapeutics at the John Wayne Cancer Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center, a chronic cough is often one of the first-noticed symptoms of lung cancer.
Though it’s true that many people find themselves struggling with their memory as they age, if your memory troubles come on suddenly, it could be a sign that something’s amiss in your brain. According to Dr. Kesari, one of the first symptoms people with brain tumors notice is memory loss that’s neither associated with either age nor injury.
Those new, slow-to-heal marks on your skin could be more than just your average scrape. Dr. Kesari cautions against new skin lesions going unchecked; while irregular moles or spots are often signs of melanoma or basal cell or squamous cell carcinomas, persistent rashes can also be a sign of lymphoma or leukemia, as well.
Our personalities may change with some frequency throughout our lives, but if that change comes out of nowhere, it’s time to check in with your doctor, says Dr. Kesari. Sudden personality changes can be a symptom of a brain tumor—and even if they’re not, they’re well worth investigating before your sudden irritability or anger has you pushing friends away.
A headache that no OTC medication can soothe? It could be the sign of something serious. According to Dr. Kesari, a headache is one of the telltale symptoms of a brain tumor, so if there’s no helping that pounding head, it’s time to speak to a medical professional about your symptoms.
Weakness on one side of the body
Sudden weakness on one side of the body is often associated with a stroke, but don’t let this symptom slide just because your doctor has ruled out a cerebrovascular accident. Dr. Kesari reports that brain tumors can cause many of the same symptoms as strokes, including weakness relegated to one side of the body.
Numbness in the extremities
A little numbness after coming in from the cold? No big deal. Feeling numb in your extremities with no explanation? It’s time to speak to a doctor. According to Dr. Kesari, brain tumors can often cause numbness in the extremities, as can tumors of the pancreas, colon, and any metastases that cause nerve damage.
If you feel like you’re speaking with a sudden drawl after a few too many drinks, you’re not alone. However, if you’re noticing that you’re speaking strangely with no immediately apparent cause, it’s worth checking in with a doctor. Brain tumors—as well as cancers of the jaw, tongue, and throat—can all change your voice virtually overnight.
While it’s not exactly rare to find yourself exhausted at the end of a long day, if you find yourself extremely fatigued with no particular cause, it could be something more serious than an excessive workload at play. “Atypical fatigue that you can’t explain through depression, diet, exercise, whatever, especially if it persists for several weeks” could be a symptom of a variety of cancers, says Dr. Jack Jacoub, MD, a medical oncologist and the medical director of MemorialCare Cancer Institute.
A testicular mass
Though razor bumps, infection, or cysts can all make your testicles feel different than they normally do, discovering a sudden lump merits a doctor’s visit, according to Dr. Jacoub. Testicular cancer—the most common cancer among adult men under 35—often first becomes evident due to a testicular mass, and since time is of the essence when it comes to treatment, it’s essential to get it checked out ASAP.
Though some people seem to have a genetic predisposition to bloody noses, if you find yourself suddenly desperate to stem the near-constant flow of blood from your nose, it’s worthwhile to speak to a doctor. “Nosebleeds or bruising can be seen with low blood counts, as well as bone marrow disorders and leukemia,” says Dr. Jacoub.
Swollen lymph nodes
Though virtually any illness or infection can cause swollen lymph nodes, if your lymph nodes are swollen, but painless, it’s important to see a doctor. “Swollen lymph nodes that are not tender can be explained by an infection, but they do need to be checked out if they don’t resolve,” says Dr. Jacoub.
A low-grade fever can actually be a good sign, letting you know your body is working properly to fight off infection. However, if that fever doesn’t go away, it’s important you see your doctor. As your body works to fight off invading cancer cells, you may see a spike in your temperature, but no resolution through traditional antifebrile medications.