Cancer symptoms: Top 14 early signs to look out for
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Cancer kills thousands of people every year in the UK but the stark figures could be improved if symptoms were acted upon at an early stage. Too often vague symptoms are brushed off, buying cancerous cells time to grow and spread to other parts of the body. Campaigns that raise awareness of the early warning signs are therefore imperative.
However, these efforts will have little impact in improving cancer outcomes if the targeted symptoms represent advanced stage of disease
A study published in The Lancet aimed to examine associations between common presenting symptoms of cancer and stage at diagnosis.
Researchers analysed population-level data from the English National Cancer Diagnosis Audit 2014 for patients aged 25 years and older with one of 12 types of solid tumours (bladder, breast, colon, endometrial, laryngeal, lung, melanoma, oral or oropharyngeal, ovarian, prostate, rectal, and renal cancer).
They considered 20 common presenting symptoms and examined their associations with stage at diagnosis.
For each symptom, researchers estimated these associations when reported as a single presenting symptom and when reported together with other symptoms.
Stage four means the cancer has spread from where it started to another body organ. For example to the liver or lung. This is also called secondary or metastatic cancer.
Analysing data on 7,997 patients, the researchers found the proportion of patients diagnosed with stage four cancer varied substantially by presenting symptoms.
The researchers found chest pain and back pain were consistently associated with increased odds of stage four cancer.
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This association was consistent when reported alone or with other symptoms, whereas the opposite was true for abnormal mole, breast lump, postmenopausal bleeding, and rectal bleeding.
For 13 of the 20 symptoms (abnormal mole, breast lump; post-menopausal bleeding; rectal bleeding; lower urinary tract symptoms; haematuria; change in bowel habit; hoarseness; fatigue; abdominal pain; lower abdominal pain; weight loss; and the “any other symptom” category), more than 50 percent of patients were diagnosed at stages other than stage four; for 19 of the 20 studied symptoms (all except for neck lump), more than a third of patients were diagnosed at stages other than stage four.
The researchers concluded: “Despite specific presenting symptoms being more strongly associated with advanced stage at diagnosis than others, for most symptoms, large proportions of patients are diagnosed at stages other than stage IV.
“These findings provide support for early diagnosis interventions targeting common cancer symptoms, countering concerns that they might be simply expediting the detection of advanced stage disease.”
How to respond to symptoms
It’s important to be aware of any new or worrying symptoms.
“Although it’s unlikely to be cancer, it’s important to speak to a GP so they can investigate. Finding cancer early means it’s easier to treat,” explains the NHS.
According to the health body, if your GP suspects cancer, they’ll refer you to a specialist – usually within two weeks.
Symptoms that need to be checked by a doctor include:
- A lump that suddenly appears on your body
- Unexplained bleeding
- Changes to your bowel habits.
How to reduce the risk
There are many things you can do that make getting cancer less likely.
Not smoking is the biggest thing you can do to reduce your risk of cancer.
Cancer Research UK explains: “Chemicals in cigarette smoke get into our bloodstream and can cause damage around the body. If you smoke, the best thing you can do for your health is quit.”
According to the charity, having healthy food and drink can reduce your risk of cancer.
“Aim to have plenty of fruit and vegetables, foods high in fibre and healthy proteins. Cut down on processed and red meat, and high calorie foods and drinks.”
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