15 Cancer Symptoms Women Shouldn't Ignore

Women's bodies are always changing. Sometimes changes that seem normal can be signs of cancer, though.

The key is to pay attention to your body so you can notice when something's different, says Robyn Andersen, PhD, of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. "New symptoms indicate something has changed in your body, and you want to know what that means."

So, what should you watch for?

1. Breast changes

Most breast lumps aren't cancer, but your doctor should always check them. Let her know about these changes, too:

  • Skin dimpling or puckering
  • Nipples that turn inward
  • Nipple discharge
  • Redness or scaling of your nipple or breast skin

To look for the cause of your symptoms, your doctor will do a physical exam and ask you questions about your medical history. You may also have tests like a mammogram or a biopsy, when doctors remove a tiny piece of tissue for testing.

2. Bloating

"Women are natural bloaters," says Marleen Meyers, MD, an oncologist at NYU Langone Medical Center. "It's OK to wait a week or two to see if it goes away."

If your symptoms don't get better with time, or if they happen with weight loss or bleeding, see a doctor. Constant bloating could be a sign of cancer, including breast, colon, gastrointestinal, ovarian, pancreatic, or uterine. Depending on other symptoms, you will undergo tests which could include a pelvic exam as well as blood tests, a mammogram, a colonoscopy, a CT scan or an ultrasound, to look for the cause of the problem.

3. Between-Period Bleeding

If you’re still getting periods, tell your doctor if you’re spotting between them. Bleeding that’s not a part of your usual monthly cycle can have many causes, but your doctor will want to rule out endometrial cancer (cancer of the lining of your uterus).

Bleeding after menopause is never normal and should be checked right away.

4: Skin Changes

A change in the size, shape, or color of a mole or other spot, as well as development of new spots, are common signs of skin cancer. See your doctor for a thorough exam and perhaps a biopsy. This is one time you don't want to wait, Meyers says.

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5. Blood in Your Pee or Stool

Talk to your doctor if you're bleeding from a part of your body that normally doesn't, especially if the bleeding lasts more than a day or two, Meyers says.

Bloody stool is often from hemorrhoids, but it can also be a symptom of colon cancer. Bloody urine is usually the first sign of cancer of the bladder or kidneys, says Herbert Lepor, MD, a urologist at NYU's Langone.

6. Changes in Lymph Nodes

Lymph nodes are small, bean-shaped glands around the body. Most changes in them come from common infections. But some cancers, including leukemia and lymphoma, can also cause lymph nodes to swell and/or become tender.

It's a good idea to see your doctor if you have a lump or swelling anywhere in your body that lasts a month or more, Meyers says.

7. Trouble Swallowing

Occasional trouble swallowing is nothing to worry about. But when it happens often, especially with vomiting or weight loss, your doctor may want to check you for throat or stomach cancer.

He'll look into your symptoms with an an endoscopy (a lighted tube down your throat), a CT scan of your neck, chest, and abdomen or a barium X-ray. During a barium test, you drink a special liquid that makes your throat and stomach stand out on the X-ray.

8. Weight Loss Without Trying

Most women wish extra pounds would magically melt away. But losing 10 pounds or more without a change in your diet or exercise habits could signal a problem.

Most unintended weight loss is notcancer, Meyers says. "It's often caused by stress or your thyroid, but it can be a sign of pancreatic cancer," she says. Other types of cancer such as colon, stomach and lung cancers are also possible.

Your doctor may ask for a lot of tests to look for a problem, including blood tests and imaging tests, like PET or a CT scan.

9. Heartburn

Too much food, alcohol, or stress (or all three) can cause serious heartburn. Meyers suggests that you change your diet for a week or two to see if your symptoms get better.

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If that doesn't help, talk to your doctor. Heartburn that doesn't go away or gets worse could mean cancer of the stomach, throat, or ovaries. Also, persistent heartburn can damage the lining of your esophagus and lead to a condition called Barrett’s esophagus. The condition raises the risk of developing throat cancer.

10. Mouth Changes

If you smoke, watch for yellow, gray, white or bright-red patches inside your mouth or on your lips. You could also develop a canker sore that looks like an ulcer with a crater in it. Any of these can signal oral cancer. Ask your doctor or dentist about tests and treatment.

11. Fever

A fever that doesn’t go away and can't be explained could mean leukemia or another blood cancer. Your doctor should get the details of your medical history and give you a physical exam to check for the cause.

12. Fatigue

A lot of women are tired because they lead hectic lives. But extreme tiredness that won’t go away isn’t normal.

Talk to your doctor if your fatigue never gets better or if you have other symptoms, like blood in your stool. Your doctor will ask for your complete medical history and give you blood tests.

13. Cough

Most coughs go away on their own in 3 to 4 weeks. Don't ignore one that lasts longer than that, especially if you smoke or are short of breath. If you cough up blood, go to the doctor. A cough is the most common symptom of lung cancer.

14. Pain

Cancer doesn’t cause most aches. But ongoing pain can signal bone, brain, or other cancers, especially ones which have spread. Ask your doctor about any unexplained aches that last a month or longer.

15. Belly Pain and Depression

It’s rare, but belly pain plus depression can be a sign of pancreatic cancer. Should you worry? Not unless pancreatic cancer runs in your family, Meyers says. "Then you need a prompt [exam]."

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on September 05, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:

American Cancer Society: "Signs and symptoms of breast cancer;" "How is breast cancer found?;" "How is ovarian cancer found?;" “Signs and Symptoms of Cancer;” "Unusual vaginal bleeding, spotting or discharge;" and "Cancer in the lymph nodes."

American Society of Gastrointestinal Endoscopy: "GERD, Barrett's Esophagus and the Risk for Esophageal Cancer."

Robyn Andersen, PhD, member of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle.

Cancer ResearchUK: "Is indigestion a sign of cancer?" and "About cancer pain."

Cleveland Clinic: "What are the symptoms of leukemia?"

Harvard Health Publications: "The gut-brain connection."

Johns Hopkins: "Barium Swallow."

Herbert Lepor, MD, Martin Spatz Chair and professor, Department of Urology, NYU Langone Medical Center

MD Anderson Cancer Center: "Skin Cancer Symptoms."

The Mayo Clinic: "Mouth Cancer."

The Otar Cancer Foundation: "Oral Cancer Images."

Marleen I. Meyers, MD, assistant professor, Division of Medical Oncology, NYU Perlmutter Cancer Center.

National Cancer Institute: "What You Need To Know About Oral Cancer."

NHS UK: "Swollen Glands."

Nathan Pennell, MD, PhD, director of the Taussig Cancer Center lung cancer medical oncology program, Cleveland.

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