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10 Cancer Symptoms Women Shouldn't Ignore

You don't need to panic, but you shouldn't assume these signs are 'nothing,' either. Plus three ways to lower your risk.
By Christina Boufis
WebMD Magazine - Feature
Reviewed by Nivin Todd, MD, FACOG

When Caryl Engstrom, 49, found a lump in her right breast, she knew something was wrong. Despite a normal mammogram 2 months earlier and recent breast exams by her internist and gynecologist, who found nothing amiss, Engstrom knew she needed to call her doctor right away. "I just had a gut feeling. It was a sizable lump and just didn't feel right to me." 

Engstrom's suspicions turned out to be correct when a biopsy revealed she had stage 2 breast cancer

Although almost 65% of women over 40 have had a mammogram in the last 2 years, according to the CDC, cancer isn't always caught by screening tests. 

And when women do suspect something, fear sometimes prevents them from seeing a doctor right away, says Beth Y. Karlan, MD. She's the director of the Women's Cancer Research Program at Cedars-Sinai's Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute in Los Angeles. Or women downplay or misinterpret symptoms that could point tocancer. 

"They say, 'Oh, this bloating is nothing. It can wait,'" Karlan says. "There's this idea that if you look into it, if you acknowledge the symptoms, then something is going to change in your life, and you don't want it to change. 

"But warning signs do not mean cancer," she adds. "Even if you have all of them. There are many other benign diagnoses or physiological changes that can also cause warning signs." For instance, you can have bloating, low back pain, and pelvic pressure and just have fibroids, Karlan says. 

But if your symptoms are "persistent and progressive," she says, "meaning you wake up every morning and feel something and it has you worried -- even for 2 weeks in a row -- it really is worth calling your physician and having it checked out." 

Regular checkups and screening tests such as Pap smears and mammograms, as well as knowing your own body, are all crucial for good health, Karlan says. 

Which changes are worth bringing to your doctor's attention? We've asked experts about the symptoms you need to keep on your radar screen.

1. Breast Changes

"If you feel a lump, you shouldn't ignore it, even if your mammogram is normal," says Carolyn Runowicz, MD. She's a breast cancer survivor and past president of the American Cancer Society. If your nipple gets scaly or starts flaking, that could indicate Paget’s disease of the nipple, which is linked to an underlying cancer in about 95% of cases. Any milky or bloody nipple discharge should also be checked out. 

Dimpling of the skin over the breast, particularly if it looks like the skin on an orange, "is something to be worried about," Karlan says. Such dimpling is most often linked to inflammatory breast cancer, a rare, usually aggressive cancer characterized also by swollen, hot, red breasts. 

Expect your doctor to do a breast exam and medical history, followed by a mammogram and most likely a sonogram. Depending on the results of both tests, your doctor might do a biopsy. 

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