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.