It can be scary to read about early warning signs of cancer. So many symptoms described are vague and general, issues we deal with all the time.
For example, fever, fatigue, constipation and headache might hint at cancer, although they probably don’t.
That’s why paying attention to your body is probably the best weapon against cancer for prevention or early detection, says oncologist Obiageli Ezewuiro, MD, Baptist Health Medical Group Hematology & Oncology in Paducah.
“Anything you can think of can be a sign of cancer,” Dr. Ezewuiro says. “But I don’t want to make anyone paranoid. Symptoms need to be taken into context.”
Patients should be attuned to their bodies and tell a primary care physician about anything that seems out of the ordinary, she says. “Know your body. If you see a change, talk to your physician about that.”
Getting to the underlying cause of a complaint is key, she adds, so patients should tell their doctor about a change even if it seems minor. A person might blame fatigue on stress or blame bloating on a recent meal. But if a symptom has lasted two or three weeks, it’s worth telling a physician.
“That’s where knowing your body comes in,” Dr. Ezewuiro says. “If you start noticing you are bloated all the time, it can’t just be from what you ate the other day. You need to talk to your doctor so more tests can be done.”
Your physician may order additional testing after conducting a physical exam and taking a thorough medical history. Even if your physician orders more tests, try to relax.
“There’s a lot going on before you get to cancer,” Dr. Ezewuiro says.
Besides bringing any new concerns to their physicians, the smartest thing patients can do is to see their doctor yearly and complete any recommended cancer screenings.
“Make sure you do the age-recommended screenings. It’s better to detect cancer early or prevent it,” Dr. Ezewuiro says. For example, “colonoscopy prevents cancer because if you are able to remove those polyps, (cancer) will not progress.”
For women, regular screenings include Pap smears and mammograms. For heavy smokers or those who have quit within the past 15 years, it’s wise to ask your doctor about lung screenings.
A few symptoms should prompt an immediate call to the doctor:
Don’t ignore blood appearing where it shouldn’t be, Dr. Ezewuiro says. “Blood in your stool could signify colon cancer. Women who have gone through menopause, if they start spotting, that could be a sign of cervical or uterine cancer.”
Fever or night sweats
“Fever is not specific to cancer,” Dr. Ezewuiro says. “But if you are having this all the time, it needs to be looked into. Cancer cells grow rapidly, using a lot of energy, so you also have fever.”
Unexplained weight loss
Losing weight without trying can be a sign of cancer, although it has many other causes as well, including hyperthyroidism or a decreased sense of smell that can affect your appetite.
You can assess your risk for cancer with our online tool.