I’ve said it… joking around about some recent health issue with friends and we’ll say, “Well, maybe it’s a TU-MAR” (spoken with a poor Schwarzenegger accent, of course). But what if isn’t something to joke about. When should we worry about a strange, persistent pain in our abdomen, an unusual lump, or a feeling of utter exhaustion? Certain types of cancer have specific warning signs, while others may mimic common illnesses like the flu. These signs may all seem like minor, harmless ailments, but taken together they could point to cancer.
Cancer Symptoms: Warning Signs for Men
For men, prostate cancer is a major concern, and there are warning signs to be aware of. “The most common symptom for men is a change in their [urination],” says Michael Fisch, MD, PhD, chair of the department of general oncology at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
Men should pay attention if they have trouble passing urine or they have a weak urine stream, “particularly when those changes are rapid in onset over a period of a few weeks,” adds Dr. Fisch. Though these changes could be indications of an enlarged prostate, and not prostate cancer, “you don’t know until you get it checked out,” Fisch cautions. I know that few men will enjoy the idea of going to the doc for a possible prostate issue, but it’s important to remember that IF your diagnosis starts with the dreaded letter “C”… it’s highly treatable if caught early!
Cancer Symptoms: Warning Signs for Women
Breast cancer is the most common cancer women face. Breast self-exams can spot unusual lumps, which should be taken very seriously, says Fisch. Any time you feel an abnormality, bump, or lump in the breast, you should see your doctor for a breast exam. A mammogram or other imaging test may also be needed to determine the cause. Again, ladies, breast cancer is highly researched and there are so many different approaches to treat it these days.
Cancer Symptoms: Pain
“The most common kind of symptom that leads people to a cancer diagnosis is pain — an abnormal, painful sensation,” says Fisch. But it can be difficult to differentiate between cancer pain and a more routine pain because pain is common — something we feel often throughout our life. “It is part of our ordinary experience to encounter pains now and again,” Fisch says.
How can you tell the difference between everyday pain and pain that could be a possible cancer symptom? “The idea is to try to pay attention to pains that are either much more severe or much more persistent over time than you might expect based on your ordinary experience,” says Fisch.
Signs that your pain may be due to cancer:
- It can’t be attributed to something specific, like an injury or overexertion
- It persists and does not improve
- It is severe
- It interferes with sleep
- It is coupled with other minor symptoms
Cancer Symptoms: Fatigue and Weight Loss
Feeling unusually tired without being able to pinpoint a cause — you’re getting enough sleep, sleeping well, and are not sick — is another warning sign that cancer may be invading your body. It feels somewhat like the fatigue associated with the flu, notes Fisch, but without other flu symptoms.
As for weight loss, if you’re dieting and losing weight relatively slowly, like a pound or two a week, this is probably cause for celebration. But if weight loss happens very quickly or without much effort, it could be a warning sign. Weight loss that is just a little too easy or too quick can be a sign of cancer, says Fisch.
Cancer Symptoms: Add It All Up
Individually, these symptoms may be difficult to notice and may not even be a cause for concern. But if you notice a few small warning signs — maybe unexpected weight loss, feeling run-down or fatigued, or experiencing some strange pain — they may indicate that it’s best to get to a doctor for a screening. This is especially important, says Fisch, for people who already know they’re at risk for certain cancers, whether it’s because of family history, lifestyle choices, or age.
You don’t need to be paranoid about every little illness, ache, or pain, but you do need to listen to your body. If you listen carefully enough, you may catch those early cancer symptoms before real damage is done!
Do you know your family medical history? Research what information is out there regarding any particular health issues that are predominate in your family and see if there are certain lifestyle changes you can make. I’m not talking the “fad” foods and pills. I’m talking the basics. Family history of breast cancer, get checked early and often. Is there diabetes in your family, figure out how to clean up your diet without feeling deprived…. There is a famous quote that I love, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”