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 minimize your risk.
Unexplained weight loss of 10 pounds or more "may be the first sign of cancer," according to the American Cancer Society, and is most often associated with pancreatic, stomach, esophagus, or lung cancer.
But weight loss in women is often caused by a hyperactive thyroid, says Runowicz. Expect your doctor to order a thyroid test first to check for this common disease.
7. Persistent Cough
Any persistent cough -- one that lasts more than two or three weeks and is not due to an allergy or upper respiratory infection or one that produces blood in the sputum -- needs to be checked by your doctor. If your cough may be caused by smoking or being exposed to second-hand smoke, get it checked out. "Smoking is the number one cancer killer of women," says Karlan. Yet you don't have to be a smoker to be at risk; the majority of lung cancers that occur in nonsmokers also occur in women. Expect your doctor to order a chest X-ray and perhaps a CT scan.
8. Change in Lymph Nodes
"If you feel hard lymph nodes in your neck or under your arm, you should be seen by a doctor," advises Runowicz. Swollen, firm lymph nodes are often the result of an infection. However, lymphoma or lung, breast, head, or neck cancer that has spread can also show up as an enlarged lymph node. Expect a physical exam and possibly a biopsy.
Although fatigue can be hard to quantify, the American Cancer Society defines it as "extreme tiredness that does not get better with rest." If you're persistently fatigued, see your doctor. Leukemia, colon, or stomach cancer -- which can cause blood loss -- can result in fatigue.
"Fatigue can be a serious problem and it's easy to ignore," says Runowicz, who notes your doctor will most likely do a physical exam and order blood tests to evaluate your thyroid and rule out a thyroid condition.
10. Skin Changes
Keep an eye on any changes you notice on your skin all over your body, and call your doctor right away if anything concerns you.
Sores in the mouth that don't heal -- especially if you smoke or drink alcohol -- may be a sign of oral cancer and should be examined by your physician.
In particular, note any sores or irritated skin in the vaginal area. "A nonhealing vulvar lesion could be a sign of vulvar cancer," says Runowicz. Changes in moles or pigmented lesions on the vulva can also signify cancer. "Vulvar melanoma can frequently be overlooked and can have a very aggressive course," says Karlan. A simple biopsy can be done in your doctor's office if necessary.
The Bottom Line
Watch for all of these symptoms, but remember: While it's important to be on the alert for physical changes, "We don't want to [cause] too much alarm," says Karlan.