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.
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.
2. Irregular Bleeding
Once you hit menopause (defined as 12 months without a period), any postmenopausal bleeding is a warning sign, says Runowicz. "Any bleeding, staining, little drops on your underwear, or big clots are abnormal and should be immediately investigated," she says. Such bleeding could indicate something as benign as an endometrial polyp or something more serious like endometrial or cervical cancer.
Bleeding that is unusual for you -- spotting outside of your normal menstrual cycle or heavier periods -- should be looked into, Karlan says. Around menopause, abnormal bleeding is often tied to hormonal shifts, though more serious problems could be the cause, which is why all abnormal vaginal bleeding should be checked. Expect to receive a transvaginal sonogram and perhaps a biopsy.
3. Rectal Bleeding
Colon cancer is the third most common cancer in women. One of the hallmarks is rectal bleeding, which many people link to hemorrhoids, the most common cause. "But it's not always that," Karlan says. Red or dark blood in your stool warrants a visit to your doctor, she says.
Your doctor will likely do a rectal exam and order a colonoscopy if you're 50 or older, and perhaps if you're younger.