Want to know what your two biggest allies are when it comes to protecting yourself against cancer?
Curiosity and vigilance.
Curiosity can send you looking for trouble even before signs or symptoms suggest that a problem exists.
Vigilance can help you spot potential symptoms of cancer and bring them to your doctor's attention so they can be evaluated.
Together, the two may help you find cancer in its earliest stages, when it may be easiest to treat.
What to watch for
Because there are more than 100 kinds of cancer, it's difficult to speak in generalities about what to watch for. Still, the American Cancer Society (ACS) advises people to become familiar with some common nonspecific warning signs.
If you have any of these warning signs, don't be overly alarmed. Many things other than cancer can cause them.
Do, however, see your doctor. Looking into possible signs of cancer isn't something you should put off. Even if cancer isn't the cause, your doctor may be able to treat what's behind your symptoms.
Here's what to watch for:
Unexplained weight loss. Losing 10 or more pounds when you're not trying to could be a sign of several cancers, including those of the pancreas, stomach, esophagus and lung.
Fatigue. Even perfectly healthy people feel fatigued now and then. But if you have fatigue that's long-lasting or seems to be getting worse, you should let your doctor know.
Fatigue is a possible early sign of leukemia. It can also be a symptom of cancer that's causing you to lose blood, such as stomach or colon cancer, and may occur as other cancers grow.
Pain. When you have pain, you often can link it to something, such as heavy lifting or exercising too much. Cancer pain may not be so easy to explain. According to the ACS, pain associated with cancer usually occurs when the disease spreads. However, several forms, including bone, testicular and brain cancer, may cause pain at their site of origin. Colon, rectal and ovarian cancers may cause back pain.
Skin changes. When there are changes in the color, shape, size, or borders of a wart, mole, or freckle, it could signal skin cancer. Other cancers may affect your skin as well. Watch for:
- Darkening skin.
- Yellowish skin (or eyes).
- Reddened skin.
- Excessive hair growth.
Change in bowel habits or bladder function. Long-term constipation or diarrhea or a change in the size of your stool may be related to colon cancer. Pain when passing urine, blood in your urine, or the need to pass urine more or less often than usual could be signs of bladder or prostate cancer.
Sores that don't heal. In the mouth, these could signal oral cancer. On the skin, they may be signs of skin cancer.
Unusual bleeding or discharge. Blood in urine could signal bladder cancer, and blood in stool could signal colorectal cancer. Bleeding from the vagina may be a sign of cancer affecting the cervix or lining of the uterus. Coughing up blood is a potential sign of lung cancer.
A thickening or lump. When associated with cancer, these most often are found in the breast, testicle, lymph nodes and soft tissue of the body.
Indigestion or trouble swallowing. These symptoms are usually unrelated to cancer, but when persistent, they could be due to cancers of the stomach, esophagus or throat.
Nagging hoarseness or cough. An ongoing cough may be a sign of lung cancer. Cancers of your voice box (larynx) or thyroid gland sometimes cause hoarseness.
Remember, having a sign or symptom of cancer isn't confirmation of the disease. But it pays to be cautious.
Consider screening tests
Because not all cancers cause early symptoms, being curious even when there are no outward signs of cancer can often be valuable. Several types of the disease may be detected with screening tests before you'd notice anything unusual.
The National Cancer Institute reports that screening tests are widely used for cancers of the breast, cervix, colon and rectum. Other screening tests exist as well.
Factors such as age, medical history, general health, family history and lifestyle are considered when deciding who should be screened, with which tests and when. Talk to your doctor to learn more about the tests and whether they're right for you.
Curiosity and vigilance, combined with a proactive attitude, can make cancer a very beatable disease.