Annual checkups and tests such as colonoscopies and PSA assays are important, but it's not a good idea to rely on tests alone to protect you from cancer. It's just as important to listen to your body and notice anything that's different, odd, or unexplainable. (You should also listen to those close to you, such as a wife or partner, because others sometimes notice things we're unaware of—or don't want to admit.) You don't want to join the ranks of cancer patients who realize too late that symptoms they'd noticed for a long time could have sounded the alarm earlier, when cancer was easier to cure.
Here, some signs of cancer that are commonly overlooked:
1. Upset stomach or stomachache: One of the first signs colon cancer patients remember experiencing when they look back is unexplained stomach aches. Those with pancreatic cancer describe a dull ache that feels like it's pressing inward. Many liver cancer patients say they went in complaining of stomach cramps and upset stomachs so frequently that their doctors thought they had ulcers. Liver cancer patients and those with leukemia can experience abdominal pain resulting from an enlarged spleen, which may feel like an ache on the lower left side.
If you have a stomachache that you can't attribute to a digestive problem or that doesn't go away, ask your doctor to order an ultrasound. Finding a liver or pancreatic tumor early can make all the difference in treatment.
2. Chronic "acid stomach" or feeling full after a small meal: The most common early sign of stomach cancer is pain in the upper or middle abdomen that feels like gas or heartburn. It may be aggravated by eating, so that you feel full when you haven't actually eaten much. What's particularly confusing is that the pain can be relieved by antacids, confirming your conclusion that it was caused by acid in the stomach, when it's more than that. An unexplained pain or ache in the lower right side can be the first sign of liver cancer, known as one of the "silent killers." Feeling full after a small meal is a common sign of liver cancer as well.
If you have frequent bouts of acid stomach, an unexplained abdominal ache, or a full feeling after meals even when you're eating less than normal, call your doctor.
3. Unexplained weight loss: If you notice the pounds coming off and you haven't made changes to your diet or exercise regime, it's important to find out why. Unexplained weight loss can be an early sign of colon and other digestive cancers; it can also be a sign of cancer that's spread to the liver, affecting your appetite and the ability of your body to rid itself of waste.
4. Jaundice: Pancreatic cancer, another one of the "silent killers," is often discovered when someone notices jaundice and asks the doctor to do a battery of tests. Jaundice is most commonly thought of as a yellowing of the skin or whites of the eyes, but darker-than-normal urine that's not the result of dehydration is also a sign. Clay-colored stools are another little-known sign of jaundice. Oddly, jaundice can also cause itching, because the bile salts in the bloodstream cause the skin to itch. Some people with pancreatic cancer say they noticed the itching before they noticed the jaundice itself.
5. Wheezing or shortness of breath: One of the first signs lung cancer patients remember noticing when they look back is the inability to catch their breath. "I couldn't even walk to my car without wheezing; I thought I had asthma, but how come I didn't have it before?" is how one man described it. Shortness of breath, chest pain, or spitting blood are also signs of testicular cancer that's spread to the lungs.
6. Chronic cough or chest pain: Several types of cancer, including leukemia and lung tumors, can cause symptoms that mimic a bad cough or bronchitis. One way to tell the difference: The problems persist, or go away and come back again in a repeating cycle. Some lung cancer patients report chest pain that extends up into the shoulder or down the arm.
7. Frequent fevers or infections: These can be signs of leukemia, a cancer of the blood cells that starts in the bone marrow. Leukemia causes the marrow to produce abnormal white blood cells, which crowd out healthy white cells, sapping the body's infection-fighting capabilities. Doctors sometimes catch leukemia in older adults only after the patient has been in a number of times complaining of fever, achiness, and flu-like symptoms over an extended period of time.
8. Difficulty swallowing: Most commonly associated with esophageal or throat cancer, having trouble swallowing is sometimes one of the first signs of lung cancer, too. Men diagnosed with esophageal cancer look back and remember a feeling of pressure and soreness when swallowing that didn't go away the way a cold or flu would have. Consult your doctor also if you have a frequent feeling of needing to clear your throat or that food is stuck in your chest; either of these can signal a narrowing of the esophagus that could mean the presence of a tumor.
9. Chronic heartburn: If you just ate half a pizza, heartburn is expected. But if you have frequent episodes of heartburn or a constant low-level feeling of pain in the chest after eating, call your doctor and ask to be screened for esophageal cancer. Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)—a condition in which stomach acid rises into the esophagus, causing heartburn and an acidic taste in the throat—can trigger a condition called Barrett's esophagus, which can be a precursor of esophageal cancer.
10. Swelling of facial features: Some patients with lung cancer report that they noticed puffiness, swelling, or redness in the face. The explanation for this is that small-cell lung tumors commonly block blood vessels in the chest, preventing blood from flowing freely from the head and face.
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