Most of us know that the earlier cancer is treated, the better the outcome.
But research shows even if we do feel something's not right, we don't rush to the doctor.
Nearly six in 10 of us say a cancer diagnosis is our biggest health fear, greater than other illnesses including heart disease and Covid.
However, the latest studies have found that 42 percent ignore symptoms, wait to see if anything changes, look for answers online or speak to family and friends before seeing their GP.
Covid and the lack of GP availability during the height of the crisis have only added to people’s reluctance to seek help. But your doctor really does want to see you, says GP and TV doctor Nighat Arif.
"If you’re worried something in your body doesn’t feel right or if you’ve been experiencing symptoms that last three weeks or more, don’t let the thought of cancer play on your mind," she says.
"Sometimes people put things off, thinking cancer is something that happens to other people. Or they don’t want to bother the doctor thinking they’re helping us because we’re too busy.
"But I cannot urge you enough to just contact your GP practice and book an appointment – the NHS wants to see you. It’s probably nothing serious but finding cancer early makes it more treatable."
Here Dr Nighat runs through 10 symptoms that, if spotted, should prompt you to make an appointment with your GP today:
1. An unexplained lump
People are usually better at getting lumps checked out than other symptoms, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes people put it off because they’re worried it’s going to be cancer.
Very often lumps can be benign or maybe a cyst of ganglion, but they can also indicate certain cancers. Depending on location, these include breast, thyroid, mouth or throat cancers.
Even if the lump is the size of a pea, it needs to be looked at, particularly if it’s changing quickly. If you notice a lump one day and then two days later it’s changed, got bigger or become tender or sore, make an appointment.
2. Blood in your pee
Even if you experience this just once, you need to see your doctor. Blood in the urine can indicate kidney stones or a urinary tract infection, but it can also mean bladder cancer, prostate and urethral cancers.
It’s something that should never be ignored even if it’s a one-off incident. If you’ve got a tumour that’s bleeding from the urethra, you might see blood just once. It might happen again a few weeks later but those weeks when you could be being treated are then lost. The earlier the diagnosis the better.
3. Tummy trouble
Pain in your tummy or diarrhoea can come and go and if they do, it’s not usually anything to worry about. But if you’re getting these symptoms persistently for three weeks or more then you need to see your doctor.
Discomfort in your tummy or a change to your bowel habits can point to ovarian, womb, stomach, duodenal and liver cancers.
A diagnosis can usually be made by a doctor’s examination alone. Around 90% of diagnoses are made this way.
Unexplained bleeding means any bleeding from places you wouldn’t expect, such as the mouth, ears, rectum and when passing urine.
It also includes unexpected bleeding from the vagina, such as after sex of after the menopause. If you experience any of these, you need to be checked out immediately.
Bleeding from the back passage can be caused by diverticulitis, constipation and piles, but may be a sign of bowel cancer. Bleeding from the mouth could be oral, lung, upper stomach or oesophageal cancers.
Vaginal bleeding can be linked to gynae cancers, such as cervical, endometrial and ovarian.
5. A cough for three weeks or more
If you have a cough that goes on for three weeks or more you need to see a doctor, who can start preliminary investigations such as ordering a chest x-ray.
Having a persistent cough has been complicated by Covid. People assume a cough is Covid, flu or other upper respiratory infections and they ignore it, even when it persists for longer than 14 days, which is when you’d expect these infections to have left the body. Lung cancer statistics are dire at the moment because we’ve been missing diagnoses.
Persistent coughs can be caused by allergies, smoking or acid reflux, but they can also be a sign of lung cancer such as squamous cell carcinoma.
6. Unexplained weight loss
If you lose weight very quickly without trying over the course of three weeks, it’s cause for concern and warrants a trip to the doctor. Losing a kilo and a half (3.3lbs) to two kilos (4.4lbs) a week without trying is considered unsafe rapid weight loss.
If you’re also feeling fuller than you used to but are eating the same amount, it can point to bowel or stomach cancer.
Cancer causes weight loss because it uses up the energy supplies that serve your immune system. When the immune system notices an abnormal cell it tries to get rid of it, destroying other cells in the process.
Some cancers feed off your energy while others, such as bowel cancer, block your ability to digest or pick up vital nutrients from what you’re eating. You’re more likely to lose weight because anything that’s going into your bowel is being absorbed for nutrition and energy.
Pain is difficult to quantify because everyone experiences it differently. Some people’s pain threshold is amazing and they can even have stitches without anaesthetic, but we’re all different. The key here is that it’s unexplained (ie not from a known injury or cause), persistent and lasts for three weeks or more.
Pain is complex but if it’s in a specific area and it’s not going away, you need to see your doctor. It’s about what doesn’t feel right for you.
8. Feeling tired
If you’re feeling unusually tired and unwell and you’re not sure why, discuss it with your doctor. People know their bodies really well, especially women!
So if you’re feeling more fatigued than you’ve ever felt and this isn’t like you and it’s been going on for more than three weeks, it’s time to get it checked out.
I get patients who say they can usually run a mile with no problem but have started to feel breathless after half a mile. I couldn’t run half a mile without getting out of breath at the best of times. It’s about what’s not normal for you. Listen to your body and trust your instincts.
9. Heartburn or indigestion
Anyone over 55 who gets persistent heartburn or indigestion for three weeks or more needs to be sent for further tests. This is part of the NHS two-week cancer pathway, meaning your GP asks the hospital for an urgent appointment for you because you have symptoms that might indicate you have cancer.
Heartburn and indigestion are linked to stomach and duodenal cancers. If you’re under 55 and you’re getting persistent heartburn and you’ve tried antacid remedies and adjusting your diet by avoiding large meals, then you’d also warrant a GP referral for tests.
10. Poo problems
Your liver and pancreas produce all the digestive juices needed to break down whatever you eat. If they can’t do their job, maybe because there’s a blockage, then you end up getting pale, greasy poo that’s very smelly and difficult to flush away. This is unusual for most people.
It can be diet related, but it’s something that shouldn’t be ignored because it can point to liver and pancreatic cancers.
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