This Is the Early Cancer Symptom That's Missed the Most Often, According to Experts

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commonly missed early cancer sign

It’s so easy to put our own personal health needs last. Maybe your spouse, kids or parents have their own busy schedule of doctor appointments and activities you need to stay on top of. Maybe your job takes up so much of your energy that you can’t imagine adding a health appointment to your to-do list, especially if you aren’t feeling sick.

But according to oncologists, no matter how busy you are, prioritizing your personal health is key. Only thinking about your health when you require medical intervention would be a mistake. There’s one early cancer symptom that often flies under the radar because many of us are “too busy” to notice it. According to Dr. Susanna Greer, Ph.D., an immunologist specializing in oncology and autoimmune disease research and the Chief Scientific Officer at the V Foundation for Cancer Research, this oft-missed sign is ignoring when something isn’t normal for you or dismissing a change in your body that isn’t typical.

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Why Taking Action When Something Feels “Off” Is Key for Cancer Prevention

There are many different types of cancers, so it’s not surprising that Dr. Greer says they present themselves in many different ways. If you want to catch cancer early, she says that being in tune with your body (knowing what’s normal for you and what isn’t) is key. “In general, early warning signs of all cancers are changes in your body that are different from what is normal for you,” she says. “Specific early warning signs include, but are not limited to, fatigue, changes in bowel or bladder habits, sores that do not heal, unusual lumps, areas of thickness or discharge, changes in breathing such as shortness of breath, coughing, hoarseness, unexplained weight loss, chronic indigestion and changes in warts.”

Dr. Alfred Vargas, MD, an oncologist and hematologist at OhioHealth, echoes Dr. Greer, saying that some specific changes to pay attention to are unexplainable changes in weight, fatigue, changes in bowel habits, lumps on the skin, and non-healing ulcers or sores on the skin or mouth. For women, Dr. Kellie Rath, MD, a gynecological oncologist at OhioHealth, adds that inability to eat a full meal, blood in the urine or stool, irregular vaginal bleeding, abnormal lesions on the skin, a breast mass, new abdominal or pelvic pain, new shortness of breath or cough, swollen lymph nodes, among other symptoms, can signs of cancer.

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To be clear, this doesn’t mean that if you suddenly start feeling fatigued or experience digestive distress, you should automatically assume you have cancer. That is not true at all. It simply means that any changes you are experiencing shouldn’t be dismissed and should be taken as a sign to see your healthcare provider for a check-up.

At your visit, Dr. Rath says to explain to your healthcare provider what your new symptoms are and why you’re worried. If you are worried that you have cancer, she recommends bringing someone you trust to your appointment with you. “Many times, the symptoms of cancer can be subtle. It is also scary to see a healthcare provider when you are worried about cancer,” she says. “Taking a family member or a friend with you to the visit can help with these feelings and provide a second set of ears to remember all the things you discuss at your visit.”

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Healthy Habits That Can Lower Your Risk of Cancer

Getting cancer is not always preventable, but all three experts say that there are habits that can help lower the risk. “[The top] of my ‘to-do’ list to reduce our cancer risk is lowering our exposures to known carcinogens including cigarette smoke and tobacco, UV radiation from the sun, alcohol and fatty foods,” says Dr. Greer. She adds that getting the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, staying physically active and getting regular screenings for breast, cervical, prostate and colorectal cancers can all play a role in cancer prevention or early detection too.

Dr. Vargas and Dr. Rath recommend all of these actions as well. “Big changes can be hard, but making a daily effort of being conscious of factors that contribute to risk and reporting symptoms early can have a large impact,” Dr. Vargas says.

In addition to all these actions, Dr. Rath says that knowing your family history of cancer is beneficial too. “Some patients who have a strong family history of cancer are eligible for genetic testing,” she says, adding that genetic testing can help identify genes that may increase your risk of developing cancer. “If you carry certain genes you may be prescribed medications or have surgical procedures to help prevent cancer,” she says.

Last, if you have any questions about cancer prevention, Dr. Rath says to see your healthcare provider. That’s what they’re there for!

While you don’t want to live in constant fear of getting cancer, it is important to stay on top of your own health—and that starts with knowing what is and isn’t normal for you. If you notice something is off, don’t avoid finding out why due to fear or busyness. With any cancer, early detection is key. 

Next up: If You Have This Extremely Common Health Condition, It Could Raise Your Cancer Risk By 30%

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