6 Scary-Sounding Health Problems That Aren't So Bad

Warren Buffet has prostate cancer. Sheryl Crow has a brain tumor. And yet neither is a big deal. Which probably has you thinking: Say what?

But it’s true. Crow’s tumor, called a meningioma, sits on top of the brain tissue and rarely invades the brain itself, says Allen Sills, M.D., professor at Vanderbilt University. Plus, the benign tumor cells grow very slowly, if they grow at all. As for Buffet: Many prostate cancers grow so slowly that men are destined to die of something else first, says Christopher Kane, M.D., chief of the division of urology at the University of California–San Diego School of Medicine. Dr. Kane adds that it’s rare that an 80-year-old man would need to be treated.

There are plenty of health conditions that sound scarier than they really are. “Medicine has a lot of fancy vocabulary, and if you’re not knowledgeable about something, the natural human tendency is to be fearful,” says Ted Epperly, M.D., program director and CEO of Family Medicine Residency of Idaho. “But some basic knowledge can help alleviate your anxiety.” So stop fretting—especially about these six scary-sounding (but rather harmless) health issues.

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Heart Murmur

A heart murmur is an unusual sound during a heartbeat. It’s not dangerous on its own, but could signal an underlying problem. “Of my adult patients, only about 20 percent of the heart murmurs I see have any serious nature,” Dr. Epperly says. If you have one, your doctor will note it on your chart. Depending on your other risk factors, he might do some additional tests. That’s it—you can even do intense exercise if you have a murmur.

Heart Palpitation

Have you ever felt your heart flip-flop or felt an extra few beats? The electrical signal that regulates your heartbeat can sometimes hiccup, causing your heart to beat earlier or later than usual. That’s called a heart palpitation, and it’s completely normal. “I have heart palpitations from time to time. A lot of it depends on how much caffeine I’ve been drinking,” Dr. Epperly says. “But it’s nothing to worry about.” The only time you should be concerned with a heart palpitation is if it lasts longer than a minute, you have chest pain along with it, or you get lightheaded enough to pass out.

Skin Cancer (basal cell carcinoma)

When you hear skin cancer, you probably think of the deadliest type, melanoma. And melanoma is scary. Though it’s responsible for only 5 percent of all skin cancers, it causes 3 out of 4 skin cancer deaths. (Here's what melanoma looks like.) But 75 percent of all skin cancers are basal cell carcinoma, which affects a different type of skin cell. These spots are rarely fatal, since they grow slowly and are unlikely to spread to other areas of your body. You’ll still want to have it removed, though. If the cancer is on a sensitive area like your face, ask for Mohs surgery. With Mohs, your surgeon will test the edges of the cancer to make sure it was completely removed. If it wasn’t, he’ll know exactly where to cut again. The result: less skin lost (meaning a smaller scar) and a 99 percent cure rate.

Prostate Cancer (the non-aggressive kind)

Nothing sounds scarier than cancer, we know. But most prostate cancers, like Buffet’s, grow slowly and are unlikely to kill you. Consider a Johns Hopkins study, where researchers have been following 769 men with non-aggressive prostate cancer since 1995. As of the latest published study update in 2011, not a single man had died from the cancer. What’s even more startling, considering the low death rate: Nearly 40 percent of them hadn’t opted for any type of treatment. “Non-aggressive cancers can be watched over time, called watchful waiting,” Dr. Epperly explains.

Another reason to elect to do nothing: Side effects of prostate cancer treatments include everything from urinary incontinence to never having an erection again. Aggressive prostate cancer, adds Dr. Epperly, can spread quickly and needs to be treated right away. A biopsy and an ultrasound show your doctor if the cancer is slow-growing or aggressive.

Prostate Enlargement

Around age 25, your prostate starts slowly growing in size. Sometimes it gets big enough to push against your bladder or urethra. This is called benign prostatic hyperplasia, or BPH. The result: You feel like you’re going all the time, you can’t totally empty your bladder, or you dribble urine for about 30 seconds after going to the bathroom. “It’s never life-threatening,” Dr. Epperly says. You might need an ultrasound or kidney workup in serious cases, “but that only happens for every 1 in 100 BPH patients I see.” Still, bring up a leaky faucet with your doc. Medication can help manage the symptoms, and he’ll want to rule out prostate cancer.

Diverticular Disease

When you have diverticular disease, as about half of people between 60 and 80 do, little pouches bulge out from the sides of your colon like rooms off of a hallway. Your doctor will probably first notice them during a colonoscopy. They’re not a problem, but you will need to watch out for diverticulitis, which is when those bulges become blocked and then get infected. The symptoms: A sharp pain in your left lower abdomen that develops over a day or two, accompanied by fever or chills. (It feels just like appendicitis, only the symptoms will be on your left side instead of your right.) See a doctor if you suspect diverticulitis.

These six health issues are no big deal, but watch out for these 7 Pains You Should Never Ignore!

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Additional research and writing Amy Rushlow


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