Weight loss. Bleeding. Bloating. Cough. When are symptoms like these a temporary bother, and when are they early signs of something much worse — like cancer?
“The vast majority of the time, these issues aren’t that serious,” says James Hamrick, M.D. M.P.H., senior medical director at Flatiron Health, “but it’s good to get them checked out.”
You’re less likely to get a shock if you are getting timely cancer tests — a colonoscopy at 50 and every 10 years thereafter, yearly skin checks with a dermatologist, and an annual mammogram if you’re are a woman. “Often cancer gets missed or is advanced when patients don’t get recommended screenings,” says Sandy Kotiah, M.D., a medical oncologist and director of the Neuroendocrine Tumor Center at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. Her advice: “Don’t ignore things that aren’t going away.”
Here are symptoms that merit a trip to the doctor.
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1. Unintentional weight loss
If you’re exercising and eating less in order to drop a few pounds, you expect to see results. “But if your clothes aren’t fitting anymore and you haven’t limited your food consumption, that’s a red flag,” says Dr. Hamrick.
Cancers can cause you to lose weight unintentionally, especially if it is a malignancy that has spread from one organ to another. If you have lost more than five to 10% of your body weight without trying, talk to your doctor.
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2. Unexplained bleeding
Many people see blood on the toilet paper from time to time, usually the result of an irritated hemorrhoid. But if there is a large amount of blood or stools are dark and tarry (the sign of old blood), make an appointment to get it checked.
“Dark, tarry stool can indicate bleeding from the stomach or esophagus,” signaling possible cancer there, says Dr. Hamrick. “Continual bright red could indicate trouble lower down in the GI tract in the colon or rectum.” Vaginal bleeding after menopause also warrants a mention to your doctor.
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3. Significant bloating
A lot of people experience bloating — or uncomfortable fullness — due to hormone shifts or common GI issues like irritable bowel syndrome.
“But if women are noting an increase in their abdominal girth along with a continual feeling of bloating, we might suspect ovarian cancer,” Dr. Hamrick says. That’s particularly true for women after menopause.
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4. Breast lumps
Despite widespread campaigns advocating breast self-exam, some lumps still go overlooked. “Many women will notice a lump up in the upper underarm and think nothing of it,” says Dr. Kotiah. Waste no time in reaching out to your doctor and scheduling a mammogram. Good news: As women age, the breast tissue becomes more fatty and less dense, making abnormal growths easier to spot on x-rays. So “you get more bang for your mammogram buck,” says Dr. Hamrick.
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5. Persistent cough
During cold and flu season, it’s common to get a cough that lingers for up to six weeks. “The airways are irritated and it takes time to heal up,” says Dr. Hamrick. But if the rattle in your chest is still there after a month and half, it’s reasonable to ask for a chest x-ray to rule out lung cancer.
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6. Changing moles
You may have had that mole for decades, but if it suddenly starts growing or bleeding in the absence of a trauma, see a physician. “Variation in color, say, from brown to tan, irregular borders or rapid growth are also cause for concern,” says Dr. Hamrick. “You need to seek out a dermatologist.”
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Bonus: Aging cells may slow growth of cancer
While aging is considered one of the bigger risk factors for cancer, new research shows that aging could be hindering cancer development as well. The research looked at the process of cell division and at senescent or “sleeping” cells that lose their ability to divide.
As people age, their senescent cells increase, driving many age-related processes and diseases.
“While mutations accumulate with age and are the main driver of cancer, aging tissues may hinder cell proliferation and consequently cancer. So you have these two opposite forces, mutations driving cancer and tissue degeneration hindering it,” said Dr. Joao Pedro De Magalhaes of the University of Liverpool, one of the study’s authors.
The phenomenon may explain why the incidence of cancer levels off and even may decline in very advanced ages, he said, adding that more studies are needed to verify the phenomenon.
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