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Cancer symptoms women shouldn't ignore

Paoli Hospital July 12, 2016 Women's Health

Flu? Twisted ankle? Stomach virus? Women are willing to visit the doctor for themselves or their loved ones when health issues like these arise. However, it is important not to ignore symptoms that might not seem like a big deal, but that could indicate something more serious.

“Few women—and men—would visit the doctor for something like weight loss or feeling too tired, but these can be symptoms of a more significant health problem,” explains Christine Szarka, MD, oncologist at the Cancer Center of Paoli Hospital. “Symptoms like these are not necessarily something you should shrug off.”

Below, we explore some of the most commonly overlooked cancer symptoms for women, and why they’re so significant.

Bloating

Bloating is a common symptom among women and does not necessarily suggest a cancer. However, if you’re feeling bloated for an extended period of time--like weeks or months--and changes in diet don’t seem to be making a difference, make an appointment with your doctor.

“Bloating that won’t go away could be a symptom of ovarian cancer, which is often called the ‘silent killer’ because it is hard to detect early,” says Dr. Szarka. “Bloating is especially concerning if it’s paired with other symptoms like pelvic pain, weight loss, or bleeding."

Breast changes

Women of all ages are aware of the importance of checking their breasts regularly for new lumps. But are you keeping an eye out for other changes, too?

“During breast self-exams, many women are looking specifically for breast lumps, but it’s important to also look for other changes such as skin redness, dimpling, or nipple discharge,” says Dr. Szarka. “These are not necessarily indicative of breast cancer, but they are worth notifying your doctor about and should be followed up with a physical examination.”

Weight loss

You might be excited to step into a smaller pants size, but if you’re losing weight quickly, unexpectedly, or without trying, it may be worth asking about. Sudden weight loss or loss of appetite can be a sign of many different types of cancers including lymphoma and cancer of the pancreas.

“The likelihood that your weight loss is caused by cancer—rather than another issue like a thyroid problem, stress, or something else—is unlikely, but it’s still worth a follow-up visit to your doctor,” says Dr. Szarka.

Abnormal bleeding

Most women would be quick to call their doctor if they experienced any abnormal vaginal bleeding between periods, and rightfully so. Bleeding that’s not part of your monthly cycle could be a symptom of endometrial cancer.

But, even if spotting or bleeding isn’t cancer-related, it’s still worth checking out, as it could be a sign of other health issues, like uterine fibroids.

Look out for other concerning bleeding, too. If you notice blood in your urine or stool, report it to your physician, as this could be a sign of colon, bladder, or kidney cancer.

Fatigue

What woman hasn’t found herself feeling exhausted by professional, family, and social commitments? It’s normal to feel tired at the end of a long day or long week. But if your fatigue is overwhelming, and you feel like you’ll never catch up on sleep, it’s time to evaluate whether the problem is a busy schedule or something more. Make an appointment to talk to your doctor about your persistent fatigue, sleep schedule, and quality of sleep.

Cough

A persistent cough can hardly seem like a symptom of cancer. After all, isn’t it usually just related to allergies or a cold? In most situations—yes. But if you’ve been persistently coughing for weeks, it’s worth a visit to your doctor to make sure it isn’t indicative of something more.

“Lung cancer is one of the most common and fatal cancers. It causes more deaths in women than breast cancer,” explains Dr. Szarka. “Coughing and hoarseness are the most common symptoms of lung cancer so, if you’re experiencing persistent coughing, it could be an early indicator of lung cancer.”

Make an appointment as soon as possible if it’s accompanied by symptoms like chest pain or blood when you cough.

Aches and pain

Everyone experiences aches and pains, especially after gardening or moving furniture. But, if you experience aches and pains that won’t go away, talk to your physician about your symptoms. Pain can be a sign that something is wrong.

Remember, don’t just refer to this list for possible cancer symptoms. If you are experiencing something that is bothering you, discuss it with your doctor.

Worried about cancer symptoms you might be overlooking? Main Line Health’s team of cancer specialists offers a comprehensive range of services and the most up-to-date advances in the fight against cancer.