These Are All of the Cancer Warning Signs Hiding in Plain Sight
A common ailment might be more nefarious than you think.
According to the American Cancer Society, approximately 40 percent of men and women in the United States will battle cancer in their lifetimes. Given those odds—and the fact that the disease becomes exponentially more difficult to treat as it spreads—it's critical to be able to spot early signs of cancer, particularly the most mundane of symptoms. Fortunately, while "every cancer type will have its own specific symptoms, most will share some common signs," says Karen Selby, RN, a patient advocate at The Mesothelioma Center in Orlando, Florida.
Those signs, however, are not specific to cancer, and can appear under the guise of numerous other diseases and infections. Unfortunately, that means they often go ignored, allowing a bad situation to get even worse. To remedy this, we've compiled a list of the common cancer symptoms hiding in plain sight. So if you're experiencing any of these things, get them checked out by a professional as soon as possible.
Unexplained Weight Loss
Unintended weight loss of 10 pounds or more may sound great in theory, but it can often be a warning that something's amiss. In fact, it's one of the most common signs of cancer. According to the American Association of Family Practitioners, 19 to 36 percent of unintentional weight loss is due to a malignancy. Most often found in patients with stomach, pancreatic, or esophageal cancer, the weight loss could be due to either a loss of appetite or the body's decreased ability to absorb nutrients.
Sure, life can be exhausting. But chronic, all-over tiredness may also be a sign of certain cancers. Leukemia and lymphoma, for example, disrupt the production of blood cells and cause anemia, which in turn leads to fatigue, as the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society points out. If no amount of rest will put the pep back in your step, it's time to see a doctor.
Usually, a cough is just a cough. However, it can also be a sign of lung cancer, according to the American Cancer Society—particularly if it becomes persistent. When the tickle in your throat continues to nag, or comes along with other symptoms—such as blood in your saliva, shortness of breath, or chest pain—it's important to get your lungs checked out.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, an estimated 40 percent of fair-skinned people who live to be 65 will develop at least one skin cancer in their lifetime. Fortunately, due to the disease's topical nature, it can often be recognized and treated before it's too late.
One common symptom of basal cell- and squamous cell- carcinomas—the two most common types of skin cancer—are open sores that fail to heal. These sores will often also be fragile and prone to bleeding and may crust over. If they don't go away, or continue to return, schedule a visit with your dermatologist.
Like many diseases and infections, almost all cancers will lead to a fever at some point. However, certain cancers, like leukemia, lymphoma, kidney cancer, and bone cancer, can cause fevers even in their early stages, says the American Cancer Society. These fevers can often be cyclical, and may go away for weeks before returning. So, if a fever lasts for longer than three days, or is continuously coming back over a period of weeks, see your doctor.
Changes in Bowel Movements
Colon cancer can frequently cause abnormal bowel movements since your colon is the final section of the digestive tract. Unfortunately, this is one of the subjects a patient is least likely to discuss with their physician. According to the Mayo Clinic, some warning signs include changes of stool consistency or size lasting longer than a month, bloody stools, or the feeling that, even after emptying, the bowel is still full.
Most colon cancers do not begin to show symptoms until later stages, making it all the more important to see a medical professional as soon as suspicion arises.
Changes in Urination
Bladder cancer, because it swiftly affects the urinary tract, can often be discovered quickly, but only if the sufferer is vigilant. In addition to bloody urine, the disease can cause a frequent need to urinate, a burning sensation during urination, and a weak stream, according to John Hopkins University. If left unchecked, this cancer can eventually lead to a complete inability to urinate. Thus, if any of these signs present themselves, it's crucial to see a doctor sooner rather than later.
While there are many things that cause night sweats, including nightmares, low blood sugar, or hyperthyroidism, waking up with soaked sheets may also be an early warning sign of many cancers, according to the Mayo Clinic. Especially if they occur frequently, and in combination with any other cancerous symptoms, those night sweats should be brought to a doctor's attention immediately.
Though headaches are an extremely common ailment, a persistent headache may be a sign of a brain tumor or cancer of the spinal cord, says the American Cancer Society. One red flag that a headache is more dangerous than usual is if it is located somewhere that headaches had not been experienced before, or is caused by something unusual like a particular type of movement. If a headache doesn't respond to typical treatments, or begins to cause vomiting or waking up at night, it's important to consult a doctor.
According to the American Cancer Society, more than 53,000 people in the U.S. will be diagnosed with oral cancer in 2019—and nearly 11,000 will die from the disease. Frustratingly, many of the symptoms of oral cancer are identical to other less-threatening growths within the mouth like canker sores.
A cancerous growth, however, will typically begin as a flat patch of discoloration inside the mouth, on top of the tongue, or on the gums. Unlike canker sores, they also rarely cause pain, especially in the early stages. While the color, feel, and size of the growth may vary widely, cancerous oral sores will be persistent in nature, while other, more benign sores will typically go away within weeks.
Though most heartburn is caused by food or drink (like a spicy margarita), some cases may be an early sign of esophageal cancer, says the Mayo Clinic. Warning signs that your heartburn may be the latter are if it becomes a daily occurrence, or is regularly felt two or more times a week.
In addition, untreated heartburn can eventually develop into GERD, or gastroesophageal reflux disease, a condition linked to esophageal cancer. According to a 2010 study published in the World Journal of Gastroenterology, about 10 to 15 percent of GERD sufferers will develop Barrett's esophagus, which can progress into esophageal cancer.
Because of its location deep in the stomach lining, stomach cancer is one of the most asymptomatic—and thus hardest to detect—cancers. Only one out of five cases is discovered before the disease has spread to other parts of the body, the American Cancer Society points out. However, as the tumor grows, it is likely to cause stomach pains in the abdomen, above the navel. If you experience this pain combined with other symptoms—like heartburn and changes in bowel movements—it's imperative to see a doctor.
Chronic pain, while often merely a part of life's daily struggles and the aging process, can also be a signal that cancer is pressing upon bones, nerves, or organs within the body. The most common example is somatic pain caused by bone cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, as a tumor grows into the bone tissue, it causes a deep, dull ache in the surrounding area. While the pain may originally only affect the body at night or when it is active, it will typically become more pervasive as the tumor grows.
Trouble swallowing, or dysphagia, is one of the most common symptoms of esophageal cancer, according to the Mayo Clinic. This often manifests in a feeling that something is stuck in the throat or chest, or even the sensation of choking on food. While it may begin as a mild difficulty, the problem will get worse over time as the cancer takes up more space within the esophagus, leaving less room for food to pass. In addition, increased saliva or mucus levels—produced to compensate for the difficulty passing food—is also something to look out for, the American Cancer Society notes.
Bloating is one of the first symptoms of ovarian cancer, which affects one in every 78 women, according to the American Cancer Society. In order to distinguish between ordinary bloating and the more dangerous sort, a change of diet—and subsequent re-evaluation—can help detect the source. In addition, if a period of bloating lasts for more than two weeks within a month, you should absolutely seek medical attention.
While there are five types of gynecological cancers that can affect women, only cervical cancer is regularly screened for. Therefore, it's important to be cognizant of the signs and symptoms of uterine, vaginal, ovarian, and vulvar cancer. One of the most common—and generally ignored—symptoms is persistent genital itching, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). If the itch won't go away with normal topical treatments, or comes along with thickened skin, sensitivity, or bleeding, it's time to see a doctor.
Melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, most often appears as an innocent-looking, irregularly shaped mole. A growth of melanoma will often be asymmetrical, have an irregular border, and may be multiple colors, from tan to brown. It will also continue to grow over time, sometimes starting as a flat spot and gradually becoming elevated from the skin. When inspecting a mole, follow the American Cancer Society's ABCDE rule, which stands for asymmetry, border, color, diameter, and evolving.
While not every atypical mole is melanoma, some warning signs include itching, bleeding, pain, or a bluish-black color.
Bleeding Between Menstruation
While cervical cancer was once the leading cause of cancer deaths for women in the U.S., it has thankfully seen its numbers diminish in the last 40 years due to the increase of Pap smears, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. However, there are still many symptoms of cervical cancer that go ignored. The most common? Vaginal bleeding between menstrual periods, or in postmenopausal women. Though it may be brushed off as a case of spotting, this can sometimes be a sign of invasive cervical cancer—one that needs to be addressed immediately.
Lymph Node Swelling
Swelling of the lymph nodes in your neck, armpit, or groin can be the sign of many things, including, most commonly, infection. However, it can also be a sign of lymphoma, a cancer that attacks the lymphatic system. It can be difficult to determine the underlying cause of a particular swollen lymph node, but if it's accompanied by another warning sign—such as fever or weight loss—without any obvious signs of infection, it's crucial to have a doctor evaluate you, urges Lymphoma Action.
Anemia—a condition involving a lack of red blood cells, which can cause fatigue, shortness of breath, and lightheadedness—is a side effect of many cancers. This is because the disease often slows down the body's ability to make new blood cells, as well as to store iron. Certain cancers, however, such as those affecting the bone marrow or causing blood loss—like leukemia and lymphoma, for example—are more prone than others to causing anemia, says the American Cancer Society.
Hoarseness of the voice can sometimes signal a cancerous growth on the vocal cords—the most common of which is laryngeal cancer. However, other forms of cancer, such as those above the vocal cords (supraglottis) or below them (subglottis), won't begin to affect the voice until they have reached the later stages, according to John Hopkins University. Either way, if a hoarse voice or a change in voice doesn't resolve itself in two weeks or so, it's time to see a doctor.
While a majority of breast lumps—around 8 out of 10—are benign, some can be much more serious, says the Cleveland Clinic. Specifically, they can denote the presence of breast cancer, the second most common form of cancer among women. While it's important to have a doctor check out any kind of lumps found in the breasts, cancerous ones will often be more irregular in shape, as well as feel firmer than the surrounding breast tissue. In addition, they are often painless. Most doctors advise scheduling a visit as soon as a mass is found, regardless of its characteristics.
It can be easy to miss, but a small lump or hardness within the scrotum is typically the first sign of testicular cancer. If found early, it may be around the size of a pea of marble, but it can grow to be discernibly larger over time. In addition, a swelling or increased firmness of the testicle itself may also be a sign of the disease, says the American Cancer Society. And for more symptoms that are important to share, here are 10 Things Doctors Say Patients Should Tell Them, But They Never Do.
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