Could It Be Cancer?


Dr. Mark Loury

Cancer is most treatable when it is caught early. However, many people don’t see their doctor when they experience unusual symptoms, instead blaming them on a less serious disease, age, or diet. According to Dr. William Dale at the University of Chicago Medicine, “Most cancers are diagnosed after patients report concerning symptoms to their primary care physician. That’s why it’s so important to talk with your doctor about any changes in your health.”

A British survey of 1700 adults over age 50 who received a list of “alarm” symptoms (symptoms associated with cancer) and “non alarm” symptoms (unlikely to be related to cancer such as vertigo or dizziness) were asked to mark symptoms they had experienced over the prior three months. Each participant wrote down what they thought caused each symptom, how serious they considered it to be, and whether they spoke to their doctor about it. Alarm symptoms included an unexplained cough or hoarseness, a change in bowel or bladder habits, unexplained pain, a lump, a change in a mole’s appearance, a non-healing sore, unexplained bleeding, unexplained weight loss, and difficulty swallowing.

The prevalence of alarm symptoms was high: 53% experienced at least one of them, however, only 2% thought cancer was a possible cause. For example, there was no greater concern for a mole’s changing appearance than fatigue or headaches, even though a clear indication of skin cancer is alteration of a mole’s color or margins.

For those who reported an alarming symptom, only 59% met with their doctors to discuss it. Dr. Dale says, “Certainly, symptoms most closely associated with cancer don’t always indicate cancer; most of the time they don’t. Many cancer symptoms are also symptoms of other, less serious conditions or result from other factors, such as dietary changes. But it’s important to have a knowledgeable provider determine this.”

Cancer symptoms depend on its location, size, effect on organs and tissues, and whether it is localized or has spread. Even though general symptoms such as ongoing fever, chills, sweats, and unexplained weight loss can have other causes, it is better to report them to your doctor and err on caution’s side than assume they’re nothing to worry about.

Specifically in the head and neck, we want to see patients with unexplained hoarseness lasting more than a month, painful and difficult swallowing, cough with or without blood, changing skin lesions on the face and neck, painless or painful neck lumps, sore spots in the mouth especially ones that ulcerate or are a mixture of red and white colors, ear pain with a normal examination, persistent fluid behind one ear drum, difficulty opening the mouth, progressive hearing loss in one ear, and unexplained face and neck pain.

Consult with your physician if you have these other warning symptoms: unexplained weight loss over 10 pounds without trying; fever over 103 or that lasts longer than three days; extreme fatigue that doesn’t improve with rest; unexplained pain or pain that persists; a skin lesion that changes color, size, or bleeds; change in bowel or bladder habits; or non healing sores.

If the alarm symptom turns out to be nothing then you will have peace of mind. If it is from cancer then early diagnosis and treatment give you the best chance of beating the disease.

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