Routine tests and checkups, like pap smears and
colonoscopies, are important -- but don't 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. Although many of these symptoms could
be caused by less serious conditions, they're worth getting checked out if they
persist. 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.
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 across the yard without wheezing. I thought I had asthma,
but how come I didn't have it before?" is how one woman described it.
Thyroid cancer can also cause breathing problems if a nodule or tumor begins to
press on the trachea, or windpipe. Any breathing difficulties that persist are
reason to visit the doctor.
Swallowing Problems or Hoarseness
Most commonly associated with esophageal or throat cancer,
difficulty swallowing is sometimes one of the first signs of lung cancer, too.
A hoarse or low, husky voice or the feeling of something pressing on the throat
can be an early indicator of thyroid cancer or a precancerous thyroid nodule,
as can the feeling of having something stuck in your windpipe.
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. Often, doctors diagnose leukemia 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.
As simple as it sounds, a good old-fashioned bellyache is
what tipped off a number of lucky folks, whose doctors ordered ultrasounds and
discovered early that they had tumors on their livers. Stomach cramps or
frequent upset stomachs may indicate colorectal cancer; many cancer patients
say their doctors thought they had ulcers.
Weakness and Fatigue
"I kept having to sit down at work, and one night I was
too tired to drive home," said one woman in describing the fatigue that
led her to discover she had leukemia. Generalized fatigue and weakness is a
symptom of so many different kinds of cancer that you'll need to look at it in
combination with other symptoms. But any time you feel exhausted without
explanation and it doesn't respond to getting more sleep, talk to your doctor.
Unexplained Weight Loss
If you notice the pounds coming off and you haven't made
changes to your diet or exercise regime, you need to ask why. Weight loss is an
early sign of colon and other digestive cancers; it's also a sign of cancer
that's spread to the liver, affecting your appetite and the ability of your
body to rid itself of wastes.
Changes in Fingernails
Unexplained changes to the fingernails can be a sign of
several types of cancer. A brown or black streak or dot under the nail can
indicate skin cancer, while newly discovered "clubbing" --
enlargement of the ends of the fingers, with nails that curve down over the
tips -- can be a sign of lung cancer. Pale or white nails can be an indication
that your liver is not functioning properly, sometimes a sign of liver cancer.
Chronic "Acid Stomach" or Feeling Full After a Small
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, falsely
confirming your conclusion that it was caused by acid in the stomach, when it's
more than that. 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.
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 about screening 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.
Constipation, diarrhea, and changes in stools can all be
signs of cancer. As with many other cancer symptoms, the way to tell if this is
cause for concern is if it goes on for more than a few days without a clear
cause, such as flu or food poisoning. People diagnosed with colon cancer say
they noticed more frequent stools, as well as a feeling that their bowels
weren't emptying completely. One of the early signs of pancreatic cancer is
fatty stools, which can be recognized as frequent, large stools that are paler
than normal and smelly. This is a sign that your body's not absorbing your food
normally, and it should be brought to your doctor's attention.