Cancer is terrifying. Just the word can conjure fear and worry, and until the disease impacts someone in our family, we all want to believe it won’t happen to us.
Still, the facts suggest that a different approach to thinking about cancer could save us. According to the American Cancer Society there will be more than 1.6 million new cases of cancer diagnosed in the United States in 2017 alone.
The average American has a 38.5 percent chance of being diagnosed with cancer during their lifetime, according to data from the National Cancer Institute.
However, cancer facts aren't all doom and gloom. The same federal data shows that 67 percent of people diagnosed with cancer are alive five years after their diagnoses.
The prognosis for people diagnosed with cancer is improving, largely because of earlier detection. The World Health Organization says that early detection greatly increases the chances of survival and successful treatment for people diagnosed with the disease.
Because of this, it’s critical to know the early warning signs of cancer.
Many women are caregivers—focused on taking care of other people’s needs before addressing their own, so it’s easy for us to dismiss slight pains or twinges. However, even seemingly harmless symptoms can indicate that something is amiss in your body.
Champion your own care.
When you’re wondering and worried, it's always better to be safe than sorry and get checked out by a medical professional.
Although many women are hesitant to focus on themselves or push for the care that they need, Dr. Saketh Guntupalli, gynecologic oncologist at University of Colorado Health and co-author of the book Sex and Cancer, says taking charge of any healthcare worries is essential to ensuring your long-term wellness.
“The most important thing patients can do is advocate for themselves,” he says. “Most women know when there is something wrong with their body and they should really push and discuss with their doctors about how to investigate pain if they don't feel right.”
Of course, in order to know when to advocate for yourself it’s important to know the signs that something is wrong. HealthyWay spoke with Guntupalli and other experts about the cancer symptoms that women are most likely to ignore and why paying attention to these can quite literally save your life.
When should you be concerned?
Most women deal with a variety of twinges and pains caused by fluctuations in hormone levels throughout our menstrual cycles or just the daily wear and tear of getting older. These realities can make it tough to know when something is simply a bother and when it is a pressing medical issue.
If you’re experiencing pain, Guntupalli says that it’s fine to give it a few days or try to get rid of it using over-the-counter pain relievers. If that doesn’t work, however, you should seek the advice of a medical professional.
“Pain that is non-specific and constant is definitely concerning and should be evaluated by a doctor,” he says. “Pain that comes and goes but ultimately is cured with pain medications and does not come back is probably less concerning. Any pain that is constant or returns after taking pain medication should be evaluated by a physician.”
If pain or another symptom is severe enough to interrupt your daily routine, you should be seen by a doctor immediately, Guntupalli warns. While getting to the doctor can be a hassle, especially if you’re not feeling well and juggling a million other things, making the extra effort might mean earlier treatment and a greater chance at a full recovery.
Now that you know when to seek help, here are some specific signs of cancer that should have you calling your doctor's office for an appointment right away.
Your tummy has something to tell you.
Abdominal discomfort can be caused by a number of issues ranging from stress to eating something that didn't agree with you to making it through "that time of the month."
Because tummy pain is relatively common—especially for women—discomfort in our midsections is easy to ignore. However, it can also indicate an issue that is much more serious than one too many servings of dairy or your impending period.
“The most common sign of gynecologic cancer that women have is non-specific abdominal pain,” Guntupalli says. “Unfortunately this could be for any number of reasons not particular to cancer, but any women that has abdominal pain that is constant should consult their doctor.”
Likewise, if you suddenly start feeling full even after small meals, it could be a sign of a bigger issue. Bloating in your midsection indicated by clothes that seem tight all of a sudden can also be a sign of cancer in the abdomen, Guntupalli says.
Guntupalli acknowledges that there are many other explanations for an expanding waistline or changes in appetite, but just because these symptoms are common doesn’t mean they should be ignored. There is a real chance they indicate something serious.
“Women having these symptoms on a regular basis should encourage a thorough evaluation by their doctor,” Guntupalli says.
Back up—this serious symptom needs your attention.
Back pain is incredibly common. In fact, a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill study found that 80 percent of Americans will experience back pain at some point in their lives. However, back pain can also be a symptom of cancer.
In his book, Guntupalli shares the case of a woman who was experiencing ongoing back pain. Although she initially brushed it off, the root cause was ultimately found to be ovarian cancer, which can cause back pain—especially as it progresses—according to the American Cancer Society.
Guntupalli says that back pain might be a symptom of cancer if it does not respond to over-the-counter pain meds or if it gets worse with time.
“The patient described in the Sex and Cancer book who suffered back pain experienced a constant and progressive pain,” he explains. “That is always concerning for more than just a muscle ache or sprain.”
Your backside can't take a backseat.
Colon cancer is currently the third-leading cause of cancer deaths for women, and the rates are increasing, according to Dr. Will Bulsiewicz, a board certified gastroenterologist who speaks about gut health in person and on Instagram as @HappyGutMD .
Unsurprisingly, women are often unwilling to talk about their colon and gut health, but doing so can be incredibly important.
“Colon cancer is unfortunately a disease that often goes undetected in the earliest, most treatable stages,” Bulsiewicz says. “In this setting, paying attention to the little clues can be literally life saving.”
One of the earliest signs of colon cancer is changes in bowel movements.
“The large intestine is responsible for absorbing water and nutrients, as well as removing waste. Colon cancer can affect the large intestine's ability to perform these functions, and one of the first signs is often a change in bowel habits,” Bulsiewicz explains.
Another clue is blood in the stool, which many women write off as harmless.
“It's easy to assume that bright red blood in the stool is coming from hemorrhoids, but it may be an early clue for colon cancer,” Bulsiewicz says. “The only way to know is to have a colonoscopy.”
Weakness, fatigue, and lightheadedness can indicate anemia, another sign of colon cancer. Sudden unexplained weight loss might make some people happy, but it is a sign that should not be ignored, according to Bulsiewicz.
If you have any of these symptoms, Bulsiewicz suggests speaking with your doctor to have appropriate tests run. In some cases the doctor may want to do a colonoscopy.
Although the procedure isn’t the most pleasant, it can put your mind at ease or help you catch a serious condition before it turns deadly.
Make time to get worry off your chest.
Like abdominal pain, breast pain is a frequent complaint for women.
“Breast pain is extremely common and can be related to hormonal changes or even musculoskeletal pain from the chest wall,” says Dr. Carla Fisher, medical director of Breast Surgical Oncology at Indiana University Health.
However, breast pain that lasts more than a few days should be examined by a medical professional, Fisher says.
If you’re experiencing breast pain, do a physical exam. If you notice any lumps (especially if it’s not around the time your period is due) or any indentations on the skin of the breast, it could indicate a bigger problem.
Color changes around the nipple, particularly on one side, and discharge from the nipple can also be signs of cancer.
Although breast pain is common, so is breast cancer. One in eight American women will develop breast cancer during their lives, and more than a quarter million new cases will be diagnosed this year, according to non-profit organization breastcancer.org. Because of that, it’s important to keep track of any concerns you have about your breast pain.
“Sometimes keeping a diary with the level of pain and day of cycle can be helpful to identify this kind of pain,” Fisher says.
When in doubt, speak with your doctor.
“Most pain and physical signs do not end up as cancer but if something doesn’t feel right or persists after a menstrual cycle or is not relieved with Tylenol or ibuprofen, do not hesitate to have a healthcare professional evaluate you,” she says.
Reach out and speak up.
If you are noticing physical changes, pain, or discomfort that has you even slightly on edge, it is a good idea to consult with your physician.
“Most women are very good at paying attention to the physical symptoms of their body,” Fisher explains.
You can start by speaking to your primary care provider. If there is a problem that ends up being outside their scope, they'll be able to refer you to specialists who can deliver appropriate diagnostics and ongoing care.