A lump, unexplained pain or weight loss are changes we associate with cancer, but there are more subtle cancer symptoms that you should look out for.
Most cancers are picked up through people going to their GP about cancer symptoms. So knowing what cancer symptoms are and taking early action is crucial, says Sara Hiom, director of early diagnosis at Cancer Research UK. ‘It really could save your life. Diagnosing cancer early gives patients a better chance that treatments will be successful.’
And early-stage cancers may not always display obvious cancer symptoms so it’s important to be alert. Of course, it’s also worth bearing in mind that the vast majority of symptoms are more likely to be something less serious.
We asked the experts what subtle cancer symptoms you should be aware of:
Abdominal bloating affects most of us at some time and is usually linked to digestive issues including Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and coeliac disease.
But occasionally, bloating can be a sign of a more serious condition, such as ovarian cancer. ‘It’s commonest after the menopause in women over the age of 50,’ says Dr Melanie Wynne-Jones. ‘It can be hard to diagnose early, as symptoms are often vague.’
Look also for pain in your side, back or lower tummy, passing urine more frequently, and irregular or postmenopausal vaginal bleeding. If symptoms are persistent or frequent (most days for three weeks), or you have a family history of breast/ovarian cancer, see your GP.
It’s tempting to blame feeling breathless on ageing or lack of fitness, but it’s essential to get it checked. ‘Any unexplained rapid or laboured breathing, at rest or on slight exertion, should ring alarm bells,’ says Dr Mel.
It can be a symptom of lung cancer, the UK’s third commonest cancer, with over 46,000 new cases a year – almost half of them in women.
‘Two-thirds of cases are already too advanced for curative treatment by the time they’re diagnosed,’ says Dr Mel, ‘so it’s really important to act on early symptoms of lung cancer – even if you don’t smoke.’ Around 10% of cases affect non-smokers. Tests can also rule out asthma, and heart and lung problems such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), as well as cancer.
Bleeding after the menopause
Bleeding after the menopause should always be checked, as it can be a symptom of either cervical or ovarian cancer. Also get checked out if you bleed after sex or experience pain or discomfort during it, have smelly vaginal discharge or experience back pain.
‘There are over 3,100 new cases of cervical cancer a year in the UK,’ says Dr Mel. ‘And over 850 deaths – a dramatic fall since cervical screening (“smear testing”) was introduced.’ Early-stage cervical cancer is often symptomless, so make sure you go for your regular cervical screening.
Heavy night sweats
Night sweats are a well-known symptom that women will recognise as a sign of the menopause, but they can also be an indication of many different conditions, including lymphoma and leukaemia. Survival rates for the blood cancers have quadrupled in the past 40 years, so see your GP for tests, especially if your night sweats are severe and accompanied by unintentional weight loss, and feeling tired or dizzy.
An estimated fifth of leukaemia patients have had frequent infections leading up to their diagnosis because their body isn’t producing enough white blood cells. Regular urinary tract infections (UTIs) may also mask bladder or kidney cancer, according to research earlier this year. Researchers found that repeated UTIs were associated with ‘diagnostic delay’ in detecting cancer. Dr Yin Zhod, lead researcher from Cambridge University, said, ‘Only a small number of patients with persistent symptoms and recurring UTIs will go on to develop cancer, but it’s important that we don’t miss them.’
A sore or ulcer that won’t heal
Mouth or tongue ulcers are not unusual when you’re run-down, but one that doesn’t heal is the most common symptom of mouth cancer. If yours hasn’t healed after three weeks, talk to your doctor or dentist. The same goes for any spot, wart or sore. Your skin repairs itself quickly so if any damage, including red patches, doesn’t heal after a couple of weeks – or if it’s itchy, crusts over or bleeds – you need it checked. ‘Skin cancers have more than doubled in the UK since the 1990s,’ says Dr Mel. Malignant melanoma is now the UK’s fifth most common cancer.
Occasional trouble swallowing is nothing to worry about but if it happens often, and you also notice a persistent sore throat, croaky voice or cough, unexplained weight loss or vomiting, your doctor may want to arrange tests for throat cancer or stomach cancer.
Certain foods, alcohol, stress and even some medication (such as anti-inflammatory painkillers) can cause heartburn, indigestion and acid reflux. But if simple lifestyle changes and pharmacy medicine, such as antacids, aren’t helping, or you have heartburn most days for three weeks or more, see your GP. It could be a sign of stomach, throat – or even ovarian cancer. Also, persistent heartburn can damage your throat’s lining, causing a condition called Barrett’s oesophagus, which may raise your risk of throat cancer.