The warning signs of cancer
Thanks to improvements in screening technology, doctors are able to find more cancers early, when treatments can be more successful. Screening tests make it easy to see warning signs of cancer because most cancers develop and spread without causing symptoms.
Screening tests don't exist for all cancer types, but if you pay attention to your body and recognize potential cancer symptoms, you can be proactive about your health and talk to your provider about what tests are available.
Symptoms versus signs
Before learning which symptoms to watch for, it's important to understand the difference between symptoms and signs.
A symptom is something you see or feel. If you have the flu, you may feel fatigued. Your throat may hurt, and your muscles may ache. These are all symptoms. You feel them, but they don't show up on tests.
A sign can be detected and measured. Your medical provider can take your temperature to determine if you have a fever or perform a test to identify the flu virus inside your body.
Today, providers can detect certain cancers before they cause symptoms, including:
- Breast cancer. Thanks to mammograms, potential breast cancer can be detected before symptoms arise.
- Cervical cancer. Regular Pap tests detect abnormal cells on the cervix that can lead to cancer. Another test detects human papillomavirus (HPV), a virus known to cause cervical cancer.
- Colorectal cancer. A colonoscopy finds potentially cancerous growths. Your provider can remove these polyps before they cause noticeable symptoms or become cancerous.
- Lung cancer. Recent advances, such as low-dose CT technology, make it possible to detect lung cancer in its earliest stages.
- Prostate cancer. Blood tests and digital rectal exams are two ways to identify the presence of prostate cancer and other prostate conditions.
Warning signs and symptoms of cancer
Unless you're a medical professional, you won't see the early warning signs of certain cancers, but you might experience the symptoms.
Some of the most common symptoms
- Bleeding or bruising without any known cause
- Blood in the urine, needing to urinate more frequently, or other bladder-related changes
- Constipation, diarrhea, and other changes in your stools or bowel habits
- Headaches, night sweats, or fever
- Mouth bleeding, sores, numbness, or pain
- Persistent fatigue or tiredness that doesn't improve with rest
- Problems hearing or seeing
- Presence of lumps anywhere in the body, including lumps that thicken
- Stomach pain, difficulty swallowing, or nausea and vomiting
- Sudden lack of hunger
- Swelling of the body's lymph nodes (small structures throughout the body that fight disease and infection)
- Unexplained weight loss of 10 pounds or more
If you experience any of these symptoms, talk with your provider about getting tested to determine whether cancer is present.
Is this really cancer?
Having symptoms doesn't always mean you have cancer. There are many other reasons you may have a headache, feel tired, or have bouts of diarrhea. Before you jump to conclusions, talk with your primary care provider.
During your visit, you'll discuss your health history, your family's health history, your symptoms, and your lifestyle. Your provider may perform a few tests in the office to help pinpoint the source of your symptoms and determine the appropriate treatment.
If your provider does suspect you have warning signs of cancer, you'll need further testing. Imaging, blood tests, and other exams can give insight into whether cancer is present. Your provider may also remove a small sample of suspicious tissue, called a biopsy, which gets sent to a laboratory and tested for cancer.
If you suspect you might have cancer, don't delay. Find out so you can get on the path to healing. If cancer is present, your cancer care team will develop a personalized treatment plan that may involve surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, or a combination of treatments.
Think you're experiencing symptoms of cancer? The compassionate experts at Reid Cancer Center will be right beside you — from diagnosis to treatment and beyond.