Generally speaking, research shows that women are more vigilant than men about getting the recommended health screenings and checkups. Still, denial is our best-known defense and coping mechanism, and it doesn't always serve us well.
Younger women in particular are more likely than older women to deny or ignore warning signs that can indicate cancer, according to some experts. These experts believe many young women tend to think of cancer as an “old person’s disease” when in reality it can strike at any age.
Putting hypochondria aside, having these warning signs doesn’t mean you have cancer. But they can be important cues in discovering you have cancer early before it has time to grow and spread, and when treatment has the best chance of working - -when the chances for survival is greatest.
Be forewarned, too, that not every cancer has warning signs. But for those that do, it’s important we know what to look for and what to dismiss.
If you have any of these symptoms lasting for more than two weeks or worsening, err on the side of caution and please see a doctor to find out what’s going on.
Here are 14 cancer warning signs that experts say you shouldn’t ignore.
1) Unexplained Weight Loss
Dropping weight is typically greeted with enthusiasm, however if you're losing weight without trying or for no apparent reason, it could be a sign of cancer. Unexplained weight loss is often the first sign of pancreatic, lung, stomach or esophageal cancers.
If you are getting enough sleep but can’t seem to shake that exhausted feeling, see your doctor. Fatigue can be an important indicator of some cancers, like leukemia. Sometimes, fatigue can indicate there’s a blood loss that isn’t always obvious.
Fever is very common with cancer, but it happens more often after cancer has spread. Less often, fever is an early sign of cancer, such as blood cancers like leukemia or lymphoma. Nearly all cancer patients will have fever at some point, especially if the disease or its treatment affects the immune system.
Not all cancers start out being painful. Nevertheless pain can be an important early indicator of some cancers. For instance bone cancers and testicular cancer are generally accompanied by pain.
A headache that doesn’t go away or improve with treatment can indicate brain cancer, and nagging back pain can be symptomatic of colorectal or ovarian cancer.
5) Skin Changes
Excessive hair growth, red and/or itchy skin, yellow-looking skin or eyes, and skin that looks darker than normal can all be signs that cancer is present. Skin cancer changes the way a person’s skin looks, but you should know it's not the only cancer type that does this.
6) Breast Changes
Changes in the way your breast looks or feels can be the first obvious sign of breast cancer. See your doctor right away if you notice a breast lump or thickening that feels different from the rest of your breast, or if your breast changes in size or shape.
If your breast becomes dimpled or looks like the skin of an orange, if the nipple becomes inverted, or if you see peeling, scaling or flaking skin on your breast or nipple go to a doctor immediately.
Bloating can be so common for women that we might not suspect it as an indicator of something sinister. But bloating, abdominal pain, pelvic pain or feeling full quickly even if you haven’t eaten much, can all be signs of ovarian cancer. If you feel bloated for more than a couple of weeks without relief, see your doctor.
8) Changes in Bladder and Bowel Routines
Chronic constipation, diarrhea or changes in the usual size of a stool can be indications of colon cancer. Needing to pass urine more or less often than usual or regularly having “that urgent feeling” can be red flags for bladder, ovarian or prostate cancer. Report these changes to your doctor.
Bleeding sores that won’t heal, or appear, disappear and then come back again could be a warning sign of skin cancer. A long-lasting sore in your mouth could be an oral cancer, especially if you smoke, chew tobacco or often drink alcoholic beverages.
Sores on the vagina or penis can be an infection or an early sign of cancer. In all cases, you should see your health professional right way if you have lingering sores.
10) Long-lasting Mouth Changes
Any ongoing changes inside your mouth can be an important warning sign and should be checked out by your doctor. White patches inside the mouth and white spots on the tongue might be leukoplakia, a pre-cancerous area caused by frequent irritation.
People who smoke pipes or use oral or spit tobacco are at higher risk for leukoplakia. If it’s not treated, leukoplakia can become oral cancer.
11) Unusual Bleeding
Unfamiliar bleeding accompanies some early and/or advanced cancers and should never be ignored. Abnormal vaginal bleeding or bleeding after sex can be an indicator of cervical or endometrial cancers.
A bloody discharge from a nipple may be a sign of breast cancer. A stool that looks very dark to black can be a warning sign of colorectal cancer. Blood in the urine may point to bladder or kidney cancer. Coughing up bloody phlegm can be a symptom of lung cancer.
If you have any of these symptoms, see your doctor right away.
12) Lingering Indigestion
Indigestion or trouble swallowing that won’t go away may be a cue of esophageal, stomach or throat cancer, or other serious health concerns. Report these symptoms to your health professional.
13) Persistent Cough
Tell your doctor if you have a nagging cough or hoarseness that doesn’t go away. Lung, larynx or thyroid cancer, as well as other health concerns are associated with these warning signs.
14) Changing Wart, Mole or Freckle
Any wart, mole or freckle that changes color, size or shape, or that loses its sharp border should be seen by a doctor right away, reports the American Cancer Society. These changes may indicate a melanoma which, if found early, can be treated successfully.
Lynette Summerill is an award-winning writer and Scuba enthusiast who lives in San Diego with her husband and two beach loving dogs. In addition to writing about cancer-related issues for EmpowHER, her work has been seen in publications internationally.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Gynecologic Cancer Symptoms. 3 Sept. 2013
American Cancer Society. What are the signs and symptoms of cancer?
Cancer Warning Signs. Huntsman Cancer Institute.
Reviewed October 1, 2013
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith