20 Signs of Cancer Usually Ignored by Women
In some ways, cancer testing has never been more sophisticated, and cancer awareness is at an all-time high. In other ways, it's still primitive: there is still no regular screening test for ovarian cancer, the deadliest of gynecologic cancers. That's why it's crucial to be attuned to your health and alert to any changes, however subtle they may be.
"While cancer tests are very effective, it's also helpful for patients to be in touch with their own body and their own symptoms," says Taylor Graber, MD, an anesthesiologist at the University of California-San Diego and owner of ASAP IVs. "Patients know themselves best, and if there is a symptom which is new or alarming, it's difficult for a physician to know without being told." Eat This, Not That! Health asked the experts what signs of cancer you should always be on the lookout for.
"Vaginal bleeding or rectal bleeding are at times ignored by women," says Soma Mandal, MD, a women's health specialist at Summit Medical Group in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey. "This can often signal a worrisome process such as uterine or colon cancer. These signs can often be scary and women may not want to admit that they need further testing."
The Rx: "If there is bleeding coming from a place where there usually isn't, it is best to have your physician aware," says Graber. "I recommend yearly checks and establishing a relationship with your internist and GYN," says Mandal. "Make sure to make all your age-appropriate screening completed and give your doctor a thorough family history."
"If you feel generalized fatigue, no matter how much sleep, rest or caffeine you have, it could be a sign of cancer," says Dr. Jill Stocker, DO, a physician in West Hollywood, California. You may feel a loss of motivation and find yourself napping multiple times a day.
The Rx: Schedule routine medical exams with your general practitioner, and ensure you have screening tests according to current medical guidelines, including pap smear, mammogram, colonoscopy and bone density tests.
Bloating, pain or pressure from the pubic bone to below the ribcage that lasts more than two weeks are warning signs of ovarian cancer, says Shieva Ghofrany, MD, an OB-GYN in Stamford, Connecticut.
Unexpected Weight Gain
"Unintentional weight gain and a change in your bowel habits can be subtle signs of ovarian cancer," says Kameelah Phillips, MD, a OB-GYN in New York City. "Signs of ovarian cancer can be very vague. Women can overlook and dismiss a change in bowel habits and weight gain very easily by attributing them to menopause, aging or diet."
The Rx: "Regardless of your family history, if these symptoms persist for a few weeks, see your doctor," says Phillips.
Unexpected Weight Loss
"In the eternal quest to lose weight, this symptom may be viewed as a blessing rather than a potential warning sign," says Peterson Pierre, MD, a dermatologist in Thousand Oaks, California. "But this can be a problem, especially if accompanied by loss of appetite or changes in bowel habits. A number of cancers can present this way, including cancers of the esophagus, liver, colon and pancreas, as well as leukemia or lymphoma."
The Rx: "It's important to report these changes to your doctor as soon as possible to maximize your quality of life, treatment options and survival," says Pierre.
Any changes in a mole or freckle, or the appearance of new moles, could be a sign of skin cancer. "Performing self exams regularly and reporting changes to your board-certified dermatologist could lead to early detection and save your life," says Pierre.
The Rx: "To help with self exams, remember the acronym ABCDE when you're assessing changes," says Pierre. "A stands for asymmetry; B is for border changes; C is for color changes; D is for diameter changes, increase in size; and E is for elevation, vertical growth or evolution, a growth that has changed over time." If you observe any of those, schedule a doctor's visit ASAP.
Skin Changes in Hard-To-See Areas
"How many women (and men) do a skin check on their back, top of their head, or behind their ears or feet?" says Alain Michon, MD, medical director at Ottawa Skin Clinic in Ontario, Canada. "Those areas are frequently missed and are also at risk for skin cancer. Vertical dark streaking of the nail, is also another sign that is often missed. It can be a sign of subungual melanoma, a cancer of the nail bed. "
The Rx: "Make sure to annually check your entire body for new or abnormal changes or skin lesions," says Michon. "If they arise, consult with your general practitioner for a medical assessment and skin biopsy if deemed necessary."
A Lingering Pimple
"Skin cancers on the head and neck can sometimes look like a blemish or pimple," says Jeffrey Fromowitz, MD, a dermatologist in Boca Raton, Florida.
The Rx: "Always keep an eye out for new growths," says Fromowitz. "If something is new or changing and persists beyond two weeks, call your dermatologist and have it checked out."
"Hoarseness, also known as dysphonia, can be a sign of vocal cord cancer," says Inna Husain, MD, section head of laryngology at Rush University Medical Center. "Often the dysphonia is attributed to laryngitis or voice use, but it could be the first sign of cancer."
The Rx: "The American Academy of Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery recommends having the vocal cords evaluated with laryngoscopy after four weeks of persistent hoarseness," says Husain. "See an otolaryngologist, or more specifically a laryngologist, to evaluate the vocal cords. When vocal cord cancer is caught early, it has a very high rate of cure."
A White or Red Patch In The Mouth
"A white or red patch that won't go away—it may be on the tongue, palate, gums, inner cheek or lip—may be a sign of oral cancer," says Sharona Dayan, MD, board certified periodontist and owner of Aurora Periodontontal Care in Beverly Hills, California. "If it persists for more than three weeks, be sure to see your dentist or physician."
The Rx: "To catch oral cancer early, be sure to see your dentist twice a year and ask if a routine cancer exam is part of the cleaning visit," says Dayan.
Menstrual irregularities can be a sign of cancer, says Stocker, including regular periods that go from spotting or even regular flow a few days in between periods, having only spotting for a period, having excessively heavy periods, going through more feminine products that usual, bleeding after sex, or having a period or spotting years after having stopped your period.
The Rx: If you experience any of these symptoms, schedule a visit to your healthcare provider.
Chronic Pelvic Pain
"If women have any repetitive bloating or any abnormal pelvic pain—like feeling full too quickly or difficulty urinating—they should have it checked out," says Sharyn Lewin, MD, a gynecologic oncologist and founder of The Lewin Fund to Fight Women's Cancers. "Any new symptoms that occur on a frequent or repetitive basis need to be evaluated."
The Rx: "Having any of these symptoms one to two times is normal, but anything beyond that becomes an issue you should see a doctor for," says Lewin.
Loss Of Appetite
Is this the first time you've looked at your mother's freshly made crepes and don't salivate? "Sudden loss of your appetite could be a sign of cancer," says Lewin.
The Rx: "The most important thing is to know your body. Anything that seems different should be checked out," she adds.
"Studies show that 13 different types of cancers are associated with being overweight," says Lewin. "According to the CDC, nearly 40 percent of all cancers diagnosed in the U.S. tie back to obesity being the cause."
The Rx: "All the data points to the importance of a plant-based diet, including leafy green vegetables, a small portion of whole grains and lean meats," says Lewin. "Avoid processed foods and saturated fats, as well as bad sugars."
A New Type of Headache
"Many of us have headaches, sometimes daily, weekly or monthly. For most people, these headaches have the same patterns," says Graber. "However, if you have a new headache you've never had before, even if it's a minor headache, it's worth being evaluated." A brain tumor can create increased pressure in the brain or interfere with absorption and distribution of cerebrospinal fluid, which can lead to headaches.
The Rx: If you're experiencing new-onset headaches, see your physician.
Nausea and Vomiting
"Most often, nausea is of little to no concern, secondary to viral gastroenteritis or another temporary illness," says Graber. "However, sometimes persistent nausea and vomiting can be due to a slow-growing brain mass, and it would be useful to be seen by a physician."
"Often times women attribute this to menopause or perimenopause-type symptoms, but sweats that occur primarily at nighttime can be associated with different malignancies, such as lymphoma," says Shikha Jain, MD, FACP, assistant professor of medicine at Rush University Cancer Center.
The Rx: "See your primary care doctor regularly, at least once a year," says Jain. "If anything changes in your health in a significant way, contact your physician and let them know to determine if any testing needs to be done."
"Persistent pain can also be overlooked by women, mostly because women tend to put themselves last when it comes to their own health needs," says Mandal.
The Rx: "Don't ignore new issues, and have yourself checked as soon as you can," she advises. "Don't put yourself last."
Shortness of Breath
"Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in women," says Dr. Nikki Stamp, FRACS, a cardiothoracic surgeon in Perth, Australia. "Women are more likely to be non-smokers than men, meaning that both women and healthcare providers may not think of lung cancer initially. The most common subtype of lung cancer in women is called adenocarcinoma, which tends to have symptoms like shortness of breath, weight loss, chest pain or fatigue."
The Rx: "More awareness may lead to more women asking their doctor to consider lung cancer as a diagnosis," says Stamp. "We all know our bodies, and if something isn't right, ask for help and be sure you get an answer."
Bleeding After Intercourse
"Sometimes bleeding after intercourse can be a sign of a more serious problem," says Phillips. It may be a symptom of cervical cancer.
The Rx: "If bleeding after intercourse is a persistent problem, it should be evaluated," says Phillips. "Checking to make sure you have had a recent and normal pap smear, no infections, and normal anatomy is important."
And to live your happiest and healthiest life, don't miss these 101 Unhealthiest Habits on the Planet.