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13 Unusual Signs of Cancer in Women

Spot them now and save your life.
woman with stomach ache sitting on sofa

Worried that weird feeling you have might be cancer? It's important not to be embarrassed, no matter what your symptoms are. Early diagnosis is crucial to give patients quicker access to treatment and the best chance of long term survival. This means it's very important people are aware of the warning signs and symptoms of cancer and go for help at the earliest opportunity. Here's a list of signs/symptoms of cancer in women, some of which are less common and you need to watch out for.

1. Pressure Symptoms in the Lower Part of Your Abdomen 

A feeling you need to pass urine frequently, getting up several times at night, bloating, feeling full after eating, discomfort and pain in the abdomen or pelvis, and/or a change in bowel habit. These can all be signs of ovarian cancer.

2. Blood in Your Poo 

This may be a sign of bowel cancer. It can be red or dark in color and if it is due to bowel cancer is more likely to be mixed in with the stool. There can be other symptoms such as a change in bowel habit. For example having your bowels open more often than normal, having bouts of loose stools or sometimes constipation and wind. People with bowel cancer often feel they need to keep straining to pass a stool, even though they have just had their bowels open and there is nothing there to pass (tenesmus).  More obvious symptoms include a lump in your abdomen, pain, weight loss and anemia.

3. Feeling Sick 

This can be a sign of cancer. Cancers may produce toxins which cause nausea. As cancers grow within the gut they can block the passage of food through the intestines and also press on other organs. Some cancers cause raised levels of calcium levels in the bloodstream and this can cause sickness. Anxiety and stress can make symptoms worse.

4. Breast Changes

Although most women first notice a breast lump, breast cancer can cause other symptoms and signs. The tumor can pull the skin inwards causing a dimpled/puckered appearance on the surface of the breast. It may change the shape and contour of the nipple area. The skin in the area may change in color, and for example, may become red and tender. Breast cancer may cause nipple discharge, or breast pain—although these are not so common.  Most breast cancers at presentation are painless lumps.

Usually (but not always) breast cancer occurs in one breast only, so be aware of any asymmetry which develops in your breasts.

5. Abnormal Vaginal Discharge  

There are 5 gynecological cancers—endometrial (womb), ovarian, cervical, vaginal and vulva. Any of them may cause an unusual vaginal discharge  (although a vulval cancer is more often a lump or an ulcer).

As the cancers grow and outstrip their blood supply, cells on the surface die and slough off into the vagina, mixed with blood. This can give a blood-stained, foul-smelling discharge. Sometimes this may be brown and watery.  If you have any discharge which is unusual for you, you are strongly advised to go and see your doctor.

6. Unexpected Weight Loss

If you are over 60, and lose 5% of your body weight suddenly, without dieting, over 6 months, you should see your doctor.  There are many possible causes but cancer is on the list, as is diabetes, dementia, excess alcohol intake and heart failure for example.

If you are overweight or obese, it is often difficult to tell you have lost weight. Obesity itself increases the risk of cancer.

7. Indigestion and Heartburn 

This can be a sign of stomach cancer especially if associated with abdominal pain,  nausea, vomiting, and weight loss.

8. Postmenopausal Bleeding

If you bleed more than six months after your last period, this should be investigated. This may be spotting, or bleeding after intercourse, or sometimes perhaps unscheduled bleeding (bleeding which occurs when not expected) on HRT, or while taking breast cancer drug such as Tamoxifen. 

Whatever age and whenever it occurs after menopause, you are strongly advised to report this to your doctor.

Possible serious causes include endometrial hyperplasia, endometrial cancer, cervical, vaginal and ovarian cancers. Sometimes the cause cannot be found, or it may be due to estrogen deficiency which is common at and after menopause.

9. Changes to Moles/New Growths on the Skin

Skin cancers are increasingly common. Do keep an eye on moles and report anything you are concerned about to your doctor, especially if the mole starts to itch or bleed. Remember the ABCD  algorithm below.  Is your mole …

  • A – Asymmetrical – most melanomas are not symmetrical.
  • B — Border – the border or edge of the mole is jagged or irregular.
  • C —  Color – this is often varied and may be blue, black, brown or pink in places.
  • D — Dimension – it's usually a reasonable size – bigger than 6mm in diameter.

10. Skin Rash on the Body With Itching

This may be due to a T cell lymphoma.

11. Chest Symptoms 

Lung cancer is the second most common cancer in men and women. However, there is a difference between the sexes. Although lung cancer rates in men have gone down by 35% in the past 41 years, in women, rates have increased by 87%. A medical publication in 2013 suggested one reason for this may be due to genetic mutations and the effect of female hormones. Lung cancer is also increasingly being diagnosed in women who have never smoked.

Symptoms suggestive of lung cancer include shortness of breath, cough, wheezing, hoarseness and extreme tiredness. Sometimes you may experience recurrent chest infections and coughing up blood. Weight loss is also a feature.

The very best way to improve your health is to stop smoking. Now has never been a better time as there is so much help and support available. 

12. Symptoms of a Brain Tumor

Brain tumors are rare.  They can present in many different ways, sometimes with unusual frequent and severe headaches. These may be associated with nausea, vomiting and drowsiness. As the tumor enlarges it causes pressure inside the skull to increase. Vision may become blurred.

Sometimes a tumor may be diagnosed for example after a first epileptic fit. It may be diagnosed on a CT or MRI scan if you have developed weakness on one side of the body or in a limb, or are having strange symptoms such as difficulty swallowing or talking.

You may also get disordered thinking, personality changes and memory loss. Sometimes loss of balance or coordination.

13. Nosebleeds and Heavy Periods

Rarely leukemia and lymphoma may present with abnormal bleeding such as very heavy nose bleeds, very heavy periods, severe bleeding on brushing your teeth, or bruising very easily/severely.

14. Get Screened!

Cancer screening tests are offered as a means of prevention and early diagnosis:

  • Cervical smears from age 25-64 — every 3-5 years
  • Mammograms are offered at age 50 — 71 every 3 years
  • Bowel screening starts at age 55 and continues to age 74.

Screening saves lives! You are strongly encouraged to attend to have these tests.

Dr. Deborah Lee is a medical writer at Dr Fox Online Pharmacy.

Deborah Lee, MD
Dr. Deborah Lee is a health and medical writer with an emphasis on women's health. Read more