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I'm a Cancer Doctor and These are the 5 Most Common Symptoms People Miss

Learn the warning signs of cancer from experts. 
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

Over the last three decades the risk of dying from cancer has dropped thanks in part to advances in technology, people staying on top of their annual screenings and higher awareness of risk factors. According to the American Association for Cancer Research  there's an estimated 18 million survivors in the United States and that number is expected to increase to 26 million by 2040. It's interesting to note the report states that there were only 3 million US cancer survivors in 1971.

While more people are surviving cancer, it's still the second leading cause of death. "Early stage cancers are usually limited to the primary organ of origin and can often be treated with a combination or surgery, radiation treatment, and/or medicines (ie. chemotherapy, immunotherapy, or targeted therapy)," Yung Lyou MD, PhD, Hematology-Oncology Crosson Cancer Institute at Providence St. Jude Medical Center in Orange County, Calif. tells us. Dr. Lyou continues, "However, late stage cancer that has spread outside of the primary organ and into the rest of the body (otherwise known as stage 4 or metastatic cancer) can often only be treated with medicines (ie. chemotherapy, immunotherapy) but never be fully removed from the body as the cancer cells will eventually develop resistance to treatment and lead to death as discussed above."

Cancer can happen to anyone at any time and recognizing the warning signs can be a matter between life and death. Eat This, Not That! Health spoke with experts who share what to know about cancer and signs often missed. As always, please consult with your physician for medical advice. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


What to Know About Cancer


Sean Marchese, MS, RN, a registered nurse at The Mesothelioma Center with a background in oncology clinical trials and over 20 years of direct patient care experience explains, "Cancer is so common because it's a malfunction of a biological process that occurs thousands of times every day in our bodies. When DNA becomes damaged or improperly copied as cells divide, it can lead to uncontrolled cell growth. This tissue growth leads to tumors that spread and impact the ability of organs to perform vital functions.

People should know when to visit their doctor for cancer screenings. Based on age, gender and lifestyle, it is essential to talk with your physician about your cancer risks and the best ways to identify the early signs of cancer. 1 in 3 people will develop cancer in their lifetime, and it can be scary to consider you may have to deal with a cancer diagnosis one day. But approaching the personal risk head-on helps get ahead of the issue before severe complications arise."


You Can Help Reduce the Risk of Cancer

Endoscopy. Doctor holding endoscope before colonoscopy

Dr. Lyou says, "Recommended cancer screening procedures such as mammograms and colonoscopies are crucial in detecting cancer at the earliest stage possible and treating it when it is still curable.  Smoking has also been linked to increased risk of lung and bladder cancer so not smoking or cessation would be an effective way for prevention."

Marchese adds, "Know what types of cancer you might be at risk for based on family history, eating habits, history of toxic exposure and other hazards. When you identify your cancer risk, you have more opportunities to get ahead of any diseases through changes in lifestyle or appropriate medication. Generally, the best prevention is a healthy lifestyle with a nutrient-rich diet, adequate sleep and regular exercise."


Uncontrollable Risk Factors

Radiologist looking at the MRI scan images.

Tomi Mitchell, a Board-Certified Family Physician with Holistic Wellness Strategies tells us, "As anyone who has faced cancer knows, the disease can be unpredictable and frustratingly difficult to prevent. While many lifestyle choices can increase the risk of cancer, such as smoking or overexposure to the sun, several factors are beyond our control. Age is one of the most important risk factors for cancer, and the disease is more common in people over the age of 50. Gender is also a significant risk factor, with cancer rates higher in women than men.

Family history is another important consideration, as people with close relatives who have had cancer are more likely to develop the disease themselves. Finally, race and ethnicity can also play a role, with certain groups being at higher risk for certain types of cancer. While we can't always control our risk factors for cancer, awareness of these factors can help us to be more vigilant about early detection and treatment."


Signs of Cancer Often Missed

Woman with prostate problem in front of toilet bowl. Lady with hands holding her crotch, People wants to pee - urinary incontinence concept

Dr. Mitchell states, "We've all been there. You're going about your day-to-day business when suddenly you get a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach. At first, you try to brush it off. After all, there's no reason to worry. But the more you think about it, the more convinced you become that something is wrong. The signs are all there, from the behavior of those around you to how the universe seems to be conspiring against you. It's an eerie feeling, but unfortunately, it's one that we all know too well. When you suspect something is wrong, it's often best to trust your instincts and take action. After all, it's better to be safe than sorry."

Dr. Lyou states, "One common symptom of colon cancer is blood in stools. If this does happen I would recommend letting your primary care physician know so they can appropriately determine if this needs further work up with a colonoscopy." 

Dr. William Li, physician, scientist, president and medical director of the Angiogenesis Foundation, and author of the upcoming Eat to Beat Your Diet: Burn Fat, Heal Your Metabolism, and Live Longer explains, "Unintentional weight loss; the appearance of blood in the stool, urine, or sputum; unexplained nausea and vomiting; extreme fatigue; prolonged lack of appetite; unsteadiness; double vision; relentless headache — these are all serious signs and symptoms of potentially deadly cancers."


When Cancer Turns Deadly

Crying elderly woman with cancer and a volunteer taking care of her

Dr. Mitchell explains, "When cancer reaches a certain tipping point, symptoms become overwhelmingly apparent that the cancer is deadly. This is often referred to as "cancer cachexia" and includes drastic weight loss, loss of appetite, and fatigue. Unfortunately, when these symptoms present, the cancer is often very advanced and difficult to treat. Cancer cachexia can be caused by the cancer itself or by the treatments used to fight cancer. For example, chemotherapy can cause nausea and vomiting, leading to weight loss.

Radiation therapy can also lead to fatigue and appetite loss. Cancer cachexia is a complex condition that can profoundly impact a person's quality of life. In addition to physical symptoms, cancer cachexia can also cause depression and anxiety. Treatment for cancer cachexia is often multi-disciplinary, involving dietitians, counselors, and other support staff. Unfortunately, there is no cure for cancer cachexia, but treatment can help to improve symptoms and quality of life."

Heather Newgen
Heather Newgen has two decades of experience reporting and writing about health, fitness, entertainment and travel. Heather currently freelances for several publications. Read more about Heather
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