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How to Recognize Early Symptoms
While it’s true that it isn’t always easy to detect cancer in its early stages, early diagnosis is a huge advantage in treatment. Therefore, it’s a good idea to inform yourself of cancer’s possible warning signs to help you look out for the health of yourself and your loved ones. The American Cancer Society provides a checklist of some general red flags to watch out for:
- Change in bowel/bladder habits
- Unexplained weight loss
- Persistent fever or fatigue
- Obvious changes in the shape/color/size of birthmarks, moles or sores, or general changes in one’s skin: itching, redness, etc.
This list is designed to reflect a variety of cancers. However, there’s no need to panic if you think you exhibit one of the signs, as none of these are anything like surefire. It’s also not a comprehensive list–you should also get checked if you display more specific indicators such as: lumps in the breast or testicle tissue, sores in your mouth that do not quickly heal, frequent nausea or headaches, or fluid in the lungs (this last could be a sign of mesothelioma). Since cancer can develop nearly anywhere in the body, its signs and symptoms are highly variable. If you have experienced one of these symptoms for two weeks or more, it’s better to be safe than sorry and see a doctor, as early detection can greatly improve one’s prognosis.
What You Need to Know About Screenings
Because of the advantages of early detection for many types of cancer, even if you have no symptoms, your doctor will likely want to perform several screenings. The most common screenings are:
- Colonoscopies (colorectal cancer screenings). For people at average risk, these are recommended yearly between the ages of 50 and 75.
- Mammograms (breast cancer screenings). These are recommended for women between the ages of 40 and 74.
- Low-dose helical computed tomography (lung cancer screenings). Thesre are generally recommended only for smokers between the ages of 55 and 74.
- Pap smears (cervical cancer and HPV screenings). These are recommended for all women aged 21-65.
Depending on your risk factors, your doctor may recommend others, such as blood tests, skin exams, and breast MRI’s. Depending on family history, some people may even benefit from genetic testing. However, more screenings are not necessarily better, and some actually have associated risks. Colonoscopies, for example, can cause tears in the lining of the colon. In addition, both false-positive and false-negative results are possible.
In some cases, the cancer never actually displays serious symptoms—the patient could have lived quite happily without the detection and subsequent treatment of the disease. Since there are many factors involved, your decisions about screenings should be tailored to your situation and made in consultation with your doctor. Remember that when your doctor suggests a screening, it is purely preventative; it does not mean you have cancer. If you take the proper, informed preventative steps, you increase your chances of living a long and healthy life.
- WebMD: Understanding Cancer–Symptoms
- American Cancer Society: Signs and Symptoms of Cancer
- National Cancer Institute: Cancer Screening
- National Cancer Institutes: Screening Tests