(This article previously appeared on Grandparents.com.)
Weight loss. Bleeding. Bloating. Cough. When are symptoms like these a temporary bother or something much worse — like cancer?
“The vast majority of the time, these issues aren’t that serious,” says Dr. James Hamrick, chief of medical oncology and hematology at Kaiser Permanente in Atlanta, Ga., “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 are a woman.
“Often cancer gets missed or is advanced when patients don’t get recommended screenings,” says Dr. Sandy Kotiah, a medical oncologist and director of the Neuroendocrine Tumor Center at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, Md. Her advice: “Don’t ignore things that aren’t going away.”
(MORE: Surprising Research on Cancer and Bad Luck)
Here are six symptoms that merit a trip to the doctor:
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,” Hamrick says.
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 5 to 10 percent of your body weight without trying, talk to your doctor.
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 cancer there, Hamrick says. “Continual bright red could indicate trouble lower down in the GI tract in the colon or rectum.”
(MORE: A New Way to Detect Colon Cancer)
Vaginal bleeding after menopause also warrants a mention to your doctor; it could be a sign of uterine cancer.
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,” Hamrick says. That’s particularly true for women post-menopause.
4. Breast Lumps
Despite widespread campaigns advocating breast self-exam for women, some lumps still go overlooked. “Many women will notice a lump up in the upper underarm and think nothing of it,” Kotiah says. Waste no time in reaching out to your doctor and scheduling a mammogram.
(MORE: Beware Direct-to-Consumer Breast Cancer Tests)
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,” Hamrick says.
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,” Hamrick says. But if the rattle in your chest is still there after a month and a half, it’s reasonable to ask for a chest X-ray to rule out lung cancer.
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,” Hamrick says. “You need to seek out a dermatologist.”
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