Most of us are aware that the recovery rate from most cancers is markedly better if the treatment comes at an early stage. The trick is to recognize the possible signs of cancer and seek medical help immediately. Better to have a false alarm than to allow a serious problem to go undetected. That said, it is also important not to be obsessively worried that every little ache, pain, lump or rash may be the sign of something dreadful.
Here are some warning signs that should be taken seriously: in many cases they will not be evidence of cancer, but they are worth checking out with your doctor.
1. Unexplained weight loss. Weight loss of 10 pounds or more, without any dieting, or a sudden loss of appetite, are among the most common early signs of cancer. Most likely this indicates an issue with the pancreas, stomach, esophagus or lungs. It is perfectly possible that the cause is not cancer but an overactive thyroid, diabetes, liver disease or depression. The key point here is weight loss for which there is no obvious explanation.
2. Persistent low-grade fever. This can be a sign of leukemia, or Hodgkin’s disease, or it may be caused by a variety of infections. Body temperature between 99.8 and 100.8 qualifies as low-grade fever.
3. Worsening fatigue. If you suddenly can’t get through the day without taking a 3-4 hour nap, when this was not your regular habit before, that can suggest cancer. It is associated with leukemia, colon cancer and stomach cancer. Of course it could also indicate anemia, sleep disorders, heart problems, diabetes, fibromyalgia or arthritis.
4. A sore that doesn’t heal or skin changes. It is well-known that moles that are asymmetrical, have irregular borders, contain a variety of colors or are larger than a pencil eraser can be warning signs of melanoma. Persistent skin sores or rashes, or lesions that don’t heal may also be signs of cancer, as the immune system is being challenged and is unable to deal efficiently with these minor problems.
5. Trouble swallowing or chronic hoarseness. Along with mouth sores that don’t heal, unusual bleeding, pain or numbness in the mouth, this can indicate oral cancer. These symptoms may also occur from acid reflux, allergies, smoking, or an underactive thyroid. Where there are white patches in the mouth – on the gums, inside the cheeks or on the tongue – these locations may offer an opportunity for oral cancer to develop, even though the white or gray patches themselves may not be harmful.
6. Blood in the toilet. Blood in the urine may indicate bladder cancer and should be checked out. Similarly blood in the stool may be a sign of colon cancer. There can be less disturbing explanations in either case, but these signs should not be ignored, as bladder and colon cancers are often not detected early enough for effective treatment.
7. Unexplained pain. I have heard that if you are over 35 and you wake up and nothing hurts, it means that you are dead! But a headache that doesn’t get better with treatment might indicate a brain tumor, while back pain can hint at colon cancer.
8. A lump or thickening. Cancer of the breast, testicles and lymph nodes can be felt through the skin. Also in some cases breast cancer – which affects men and women – can cause red or thickened skin, rather than a lump.
Aches, sores and rashes are part of our normal existence. Our bodies are under constant attack from microbes and our immune systems are very effective in dealing with them most of the time. But if any of these symptoms persist, or fail to respond to treatments which have been effective in the past, it is a good idea to seek medical advice.