Cancer is a mysterious disease. There is no cure yet, and it strikes without warning. This is why individuals should be wary of any abrupt or abnormal changes in their bodies, as cancer can progress silently without people knowing. By the time they realize they need to have their bodies checked, it is already too late. Here are ten of the cancer symptoms women have to watch out for.
Symptom No. 1: Changes in the Breast
Many people already know what to do when they feel a lump in their breasts, but if you are one of those that have not had the opportunity to be informed about breast cancer, then read on. Bottom line is that if you feel a lump, do not ignore it. Schedule an appointment with a physician and have it checked. If you have just taken a mammogram prior to noticing the lump, you still have to consult with a doctor. This is what the former president of the American Cancer Society, Carolyn Runowicz, MD, recommends. She is a breast cancer survivor too.
If you notice that one or both of your nipples is scaly or begins to flake, then you could have what is called Paget’s disease of the nipple. This is often connected to cancer 95% of the time. Milky or bloody nipple discharge is also something that needs to be checked by a medical professional.
Another thing that women need to look is when the skin over the breast is all dimply and looking more like an orange. This is a sign of something quite serious, such as an inflammatory breast cancer, which is a rare form of cancer that is also very aggressive. It is characterized by swollen, warm, and reddish breasts.
What to expect from your visit to the doctor:
- breast exam
- analysis of your medical history
- possible mammogram
- likely chance of a sonogram
Depending on the mammogram and sonogram results, a biopsy might have to be performed.
Symptom No. 2: Irregular Vaginal Bleeding
Once a woman hits menopause (if you have not had a period for about 12 months), and experiences postmenopausal bleeding, it is something to be worried about. Whether it is profuse bleeding, staining, clotting, or just a few little drops, any person should go see a doctor without hesitation. Such bleeding may point to an endometrial polyp, which is benign, or something that is more serious such as endometrial or cervical cancer.
Bleeding that is unusual for you — spotting outside of your normal menstrual cycle or heavier periods — should be looked into, Karlan says. Around menopause, abnormal bleeding is often tied to hormonal shifts, though more serious problems could be the cause, which is why all abnormal vaginal bleeding should be checked. Expect to receive a transvaginal sonogram and perhaps a biopsy.
Symptom No. 3: Rectal Bleeding
Colon cancer is the third most common cancer in women. One of the hallmarks is rectal bleeding, which many people link to hemorrhoids, the most common cause. “But it’s not always that,” Karlan says. Red or dark blood in your stool warrants a visit to your doctor, she says.
Your doctor will likely do a rectal exam and order a colonoscopy if you’re 50 or older, and perhaps if you’re younger.
Symptom No. 4: Smelly Discharge
A foul or smelly vaginal discharge could be a symptom of cervical cancer, says Runowicz. The discharge may contain blood and may occur between periods or after menopause. It’s best not to self-treat a discharge with over-the-counter medications, she says.
An exam is necessary to determine if the discharge is due to an infection or something more serious.
Symptom No. 5: Bloating
“Ovarian cancer is the No. 1 killer of all the reproductive-organ cancers,” Karlan says. “For years it’s been known by the misnomer of the silent killer, and we really need to put that aside. Ovarian cancer clearly has symptoms.”
The four most frequent are:
- feeling that you’re getting full earlier than you typically would when eating
- changing bowel or bladder habits, such as urinating more frequently
- low back or pelvic pain
It’s not unusual to have one or two of these symptoms occasionally, particularly after a big meal. But if you have two or more symptoms daily for more than 2 weeks, call your doctor.
Expect a pelvic exam, transvaginal sonogram, and perhaps a blood test to check for cancerous cells.
Symptom No. 6: Unexplained Weight Loss
“If you suddenly put on 5 pounds, I wouldn’t worry,” Runowicz says. But gaining excess weight month to month — especially if you usually maintain a normal weight and watch what you eat — can be due to a buildup of fluid in the belly related to ovarian cancer and warrants a checkup with your doctor, she says.
Unexplained weight loss of 10 pounds or more “may be the first sign of cancer,” the American Cancer Society says, and is most often linked to pancreatic, stomach, esophagus, or lung cancer.
But weight loss in women is often caused by a hyperactive thyroid, Runowicz says. Expect your doctor to order a thyroid test first to check for this common disease.
Symptom No. 7: Persistent Cough
Any persistent cough — one that lasts more than 2 or 3 weeks and is not due to an allergy or upper respiratory infection, or one that produces blood — needs to be checked by your doctor.
If your cough may be caused by smoking or being exposed to secondhand smoke, get it checked out “Smoking is the number one cancer killer of women,” says Karlan.
You don’t have to be a smoker to be at risk. The majority of lung cancers that nonsmokers get also occur in women. Expect your doctor to order a chest X-ray and perhaps a CT scan.
Symptom No. 8: Sudden Change in Lymph Node
“If you feel hard lymph nodes in your neck or under your arm, you should be seen by a doctor,” Runowicz says.
Swollen, firm lymph nodes are often caused by an infection.
But lymphoma or lung, breast, head, or neck cancer that has spread can also show up as an enlarged lymph node. Expect a physical exam and possibly a biopsy.
Symptom No. 9: Unexplained Fatigue
The American Cancer Society defines fatigue as “extreme tiredness that does not get better with rest.” So if you’re often fatigued, see your doctor. Leukemia, colon, or stomach cancer — which can cause blood loss — can result in fatigue.
“Fatigue can be a serious problem and it’s easy to ignore,” Runowicz says.
Your doctor will most likely do a physical exam and order blood tests to check your thyroid and rule out a thyroid condition, she says.
Symptom No. 10: Suspicious Changes in the Skin
The skin is the outermost layer of the body and our primary protection against bacteria, dirt, and other things. It is important to keep an eye out for any abrupt or abnormal changes on your skin in different areas of your body. Do not hesitate to call your doctor in the event that you find something that looks suspicious.
If there are sores in the mouth or the skin around it that are not healing for quite a while now, they could be a sign of oral cancer. Smokers and alcohol drinkers should be more wary about this than anybody else, as they are at a higher risk.
This goes for vaginal sores, as a non-healing lesion in the vulva can be a sign of vulvar cancer. Even moles on the vulva may be related to cancer, as many vulvar melanomas are overlooked by people who have it. A biopsy can be performed inside the physician’s office, if your doctor finds it necessary.
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