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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.

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. 

4. Discharge

A foul or smelly vaginal discharge could be a symptom of cervical cancer, says Runowicz. The discharge may contain blood and may occur between periods or after menopause. It's best not to self-treat a discharge with over-the-counter medications, she says. 

An exam is necessary to determine if the discharge is due to an infection or something more serious. 

5. Bloating

"Ovarian cancer is the No. 1 killer of all the reproductive-organ cancers," Karlan says. "For years it's been known by the misnomer of the silent killer, and we really need to put that aside. Ovarian cancer clearly has symptoms."

The four most frequent are:

  • bloating
  • feeling that you're getting full earlier than you typically would when eating
  • changing bowel or bladder habits, such as urinating more frequently
  • low back or pelvic pain 

It's not unusual to have one or two of these symptoms occasionally, particularly after a big meal. But if you have two or more symptoms daily for more than 2 weeks, call your doctor.

Expect a pelvic exam, transvaginal sonogram, and perhaps a blood test to check for cancerous cells. 

6. Unexplained Weight Gain or Loss

"If you suddenly put on 5 pounds, I wouldn't worry," Runowicz says. But gaining excess weight month to month -- especially if you usually maintain a normal weight and watch what you eat -- can be due to a buildup of fluid in the belly related to ovarian cancer and warrants a checkup with your doctor, she says. 

Unexplained weight loss of 10 pounds or more "may be the first sign of cancer," the American Cancer Society says, and is most often linked to pancreatic, stomach, esophagus, or lung cancer

But weight loss in women is often caused by a hyperactive thyroid, Runowicz says. Expect your doctor to order a thyroid test first to check for this common disease. 

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