You might know that finding a lump in your breast means you should have it looked at. But lumps in tissue are not the only signs you need to be aware of when it comes to cancer. Odd or unfamiliar symptoms, like swelling in your neck, skin sores that won't heal, or unrelenting pain, deserve the same sort of vigilance.
There's no need to leap to hair-raising conclusions—What if it's cancer?—when it could easily be something else. But the sooner you know what's ailing you, the quicker you and a healthcare provider can take appropriate action.
If you think something is amiss, getting it checked out as early as possible is crucial. Cancers that are detected early can be treated before they get a chance to spread other parts of the body. Some cancer screening procedures require seeing a healthcare provider, but you can also do self-examinations at home.
Depending on your symptoms, medical history, and physical exam results, healthcare providers may order specific diagnostic tests or procedures to look for cancer. If cancer is found, they can also determine whether and how far it has spread.
We asked physicians specializing in head-and-neck, gynecologic, breast, blood, lung, skin, and other malignancies to describe little-known cancer symptoms you should know about. Some of these indicators are surprising, and others are more intuitive, but none should ever be ignored.
A Pearly Pimple
Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer, and there are several different types. The main ones are squamous cell carcinoma, basal cell carcinoma, and, somewhat less common, melanoma.
Marc Glashofer, MD, a board-certified, private-practice dermatologist specializing in skin cancer in Northern New Jersey, told Health that basal cell carcinomas sometimes have a pearly translucent or waxy appearance. Other times these cancers look like sores, scaly patches, or cyst-like bumps.
"A lot of times people come in and say, 'Hey, I've got this pimple on my cheek or my nose; it's not going away.'" Usually, these cancers are slow-growing and highly treatable, said Dr. Glashofer, adding that any bump persisting for six to eight weeks ought to be checked out.
Foreign Body Sensation
An annoying lump-in-the-throat feeling often goes hand-in-hand with acid reflux. But sometimes, that awkward sensation is telling you a tumor is present.
"It's almost like, OK, did I swallow a chicken bone? Is there a hair back there?" Bruce Davidson, MD, professor and chairman of otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, D.C., told Health. One patient bothered by this symptom saw multiple doctors over five years before seeing Dr. Davidson, who found a tiny back-of-the-tongue cancer using a scoping procedure.
Dr. Davidson said base-of-tongue and tonsil tumors are on the rise due to human papillomavirus infections, which are often acquired through oral sex. HPV can lay dormant in the body for years before producing symptoms, added Dr. Davidson, so people may not know they're even at risk of oral head-and-neck cancer.
Screening tests are used to find cancer before a person has any symptoms. The American Cancer Society offers screening guidelines for breast cancer, colon and rectal cancer and polyps, cervical cancer, endometrial cancer, lung cancer, and prostate cancer.
Some cancers, like lymphomas, can make people extremely itchy. Lymphomas are types of cancer that affect the lymph system (part of your immune system). They include Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Regardless of the type, lymphomas can cause itchiness.
Itch is such a non-specific symptom people often go from internist to dermatologist seeking relief, Craig Moskowitz, MD, physician-in-chief for oncology at the University of Miami Health System's Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, told Health.
If you've seen the dermatologist or sought a second opinion and "nobody can really figure out why you're having generalized itching, you really need to pursue a possible diagnosis of an underlying malignancy," said Dr. Moskowitz.
What does it mean when one ear constantly aches, but there's no sign of infection? It may not be an ear problem at all. It might be "referred otalgia," meaning pain that travels to the ear from nerves in the head or neck. Lots of conditions can trigger this sort of ear discomfort. One of them is oral cancer.
"An early cancer on the back of the tongue or tonsil might have pretty subtle symptoms," explained Dr. Davidson. Someone can have ear pain without other symptoms for weeks or months before the oral cancer is uncovered, said Dr. Davidson.
It could also be a sign of a later-stage mouth cancer that's "burrowing down and starting to interfere with those nerves," said Dr. Davidson.
Spotting or irregular periods may be due to a hormonal imbalance. It can also signal the presence of uterine fibroids or polyps. Sometimes, though, unusual bleeding is a sign of endometrial cancer. Endometrial cancer is the more common type of uterine cancer and can often be cured.
Stephen Rubin, MD, chief of the division of gynecologic oncology at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, told Health that any abnormal bleeding should be promptly evaluated, especially after menopause (because bleeding after menopause isn't normal) or before menopause in those with risk factors for endometrial cancer, such as obesity.
Most endometrial cancers are diagnosed at stage 1 when they're "highly curable," said Dr. Rubin.
A Droopy Eyelid
A droopy upper eyelid can be a sign of aging, injury, or disease (like stroke). It can also alert healthcare providers to a so-called Pancoast tumor at the very top of your lung.
A Pancoast tumor is a type of lung cancer that begins in the upper part of a lung and spreads to nearby tissues such as the ribs and vertebrae. Most Pancoast tumors are non-small cell cancers.
The majority of lung cancers are caused by smoking. Being exposed to other cancer-causing agents, like asbestos, can also increase the risk of developing lung cancer.
Unlike with other lung cancers, cough is not an early symptom of a Pancoast tumor. One of the first signs can be severe shoulder pain. Some people develop Horner's syndrome, a triad of symptoms including a droopy eyelid, constricted pupil, and loss of sweating on the same side of the face.
Because of its location in the tip, or apex, of the lung, a Pancoast tumor can irritate the nerve root to the eye and the face, Abirami Sivapiragasam, MD, a medical oncologist and assistant professor at State University of New York Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, told Health.
Scaly Patches or Warty Lumps
A red, scaly patch of skin does not need to cause alarm right away. If it's on a sun-exposed area of your body and it's still there eight weeks later, don't assume it's eczema, cautioned Dr. Glashofer. It could be a sign of squamous cell carcinoma.
This type of skin cancer sometimes has a "warty-looking" or "dome-shaped" appearance. It commonly appears on the head, neck, and back of the hands. Some people tend to find it on the front of their legs from years and years of sun exposure, said Dr. Glashofer.
Squamous cell carcinoma is almost always curable when caught early.
Blood in your stool (if it's not caused by a hemorrhoid) is a classic sign of colorectal cancer, the third most commonly diagnosed cancer in the U.S.
Anemia, which can make you tired, lightheaded, and dizzy, can sometimes be the first sign of this cancer. The reason? Colorectal cancers can bleed into the digestive tract.
Rectal bleeding may not be easily detectable. "It tends to be microscopic bleeding," explained Dr. Moskowitz. Over time, blood loss can lead to low red blood cell counts.
A Hoarse Voice
Some people temporarily lose their voice when they catch a bad cold. Hoarseness that persists is a different matter and should be evaluated promptly.
Laryngeal cancer attacks tissues in the voice box (larynx), which houses your vocal cords. This type of cancer might also cause throat pain, ear pain, or a lump in the neck or throat. Cancer of the larynx can also spread to the thyroid, trachea (windpipe), or esophagus.
Check with a healthcare provider if you have any of the following symptoms:
- A sore throat or cough that does not go away
- Trouble or pain when swallowing
- Ear pain
- A lump in the neck or throat
- A change or hoarseness in the voice
Occasional abdominal pain or bloating is a common complaint not specific to cancer. You might have a GI problem, like irritable bowel syndrome. In rare cases, though, bloating and pelvic discomfort are signs of ovarian cancer.
Ovarian cancer affects about 1.1 percent of people with ovaries over the course of their lifetime. Having a family history of ovarian cancer can mean that you have an increased risk for the disease.
A Lump in Your Neck
A lump in your neck could be caused by many things. Most often, lumps or swellings in your neck are swollen lymph nodes caused by bacterial or viral infections, cancer, or other rare causes.
Lumps in the neck muscles can be caused by injury or torticollis, a condition in which the neck muscles cause the head to tilt, turn or rotate to the side. These lumps are usually found at the front of the neck.
Sometimes a lump in the neck is caused by the thyroid gland. The thyroid, a butterfly-shaped gland located in your neck, is responsible for controlling a variety of bodily functions. Swelling or lumps in the thyroid gland can be due to thyroid disease or cancer.
All neck lumps in children and adults should be checked right away by a healthcare provider. If you find one (or more), keep in mind that most lumps in the throat of adults are not cancer. However, the risk of throat cancer increases with age and in people who smoke or drink large amounts of alcohol.
Breast Swelling or Dimpling
Unusual breast changes (not just lumps) require immediate attention. Unusual, in this sense, can mean breast swelling or dimpling of the skin. In general, you'll want to watch out for the following signs and symptoms:
- Breast pain
- A new lump or thickening in the breast or armpit area
- Changes in the size and shape of the breast
- Skin changes in the nipple area or breast, including dimpling or puckering (think of the skin of an orange), scaling, redness, and swelling
- A nipple that has turned inward
- Nipple discharge (more on this below)
The types of breast cancer include ductal carcinoma, lobular carcinoma, inflammatory breast cancer, and Paget's disease of the breast.
Nipple Crusting or Discharge
Nipple crusting and discharge can also be signs of breast cancer. By discharge, we're not talking about breast milk. We're talking about other nipple discharge that can happen suddenly, be bloody, or happen only in one breast.
Skin changes affecting your nipple and areola can be easily mistaken for eczema or dermatitis. However, Paget's disease, a rare breast cancer, can also cause itching, tingling, flaking, and crusting of the skin, along with bloody or yellowish discharge.
Symptoms of Paget's disease of the breast can be found on the skin of the nipple and, usually, the darker circle of skin around it, called the areola:
- Itching, tingling, or redness in the nipple and/or areola
- Flaking, crusty, or thickened skin on or around the nipple
- A flattened nipple
- Discharge from the nipple that may be yellowish or bloody
"Eventually, if you don't address it, it can progress," said Dr. Sivapiragasam.
Bone pain may be the result of an injury, infection, or osteoporosis. Or, it can be a sign of cancer.
Unexplained bone pain, especially in the spine, pelvis, and ribs, may be a symptom of multiple myeloma. Multiple myeloma is a cancer of plasma cells. Normal plasma cells are found in the bone marrow and are an important part of the immune system.
Bone or joint pain in people who have symptoms such as fever, fatigue, or weight loss can be a sign of leukemia, a type of blood and bone marrow cancer.
Pain After Drinking Alcohol
You can get a hangover from drinking large amounts of alcohol. But, in rare cases, unexplained pain after consuming alcohol suggests a diagnosis of Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer that starts in white blood cells called lymphocytes. Lymphocytes are part of the body’s immune system.
A published case study describes a 31-year-old man who experienced severe pain moments after taking just two to three sips of alcohol. He'd had the same reaction for three months, with no pain after swallowing other liquids or food. A biopsy of a lymph node confirmed his diagnosis.
"Usually, these patients can have some swollen lymph nodes in the neck or the chest," said Dr. Moskowitz. Alcohol consumption seems to induce pain in these lumps.
Hodgkin lymphoma can start almost anywhere in the body. The most common sites are the lymph nodes in the chest, neck, or under the arms.
Feeling like you need to pee all the time? Or all of a sudden? Urinary symptoms are common with urinary tract infections, overactive bladder, or type 2 diabetes. They can also occur with bladder cancer, which is the sixth most common cancer in the U.S.
As for blood in the urine, it can signal a nasty urinary tract infection that's traveled to the bladder. Or it can be a sign of a kidney stone. Less commonly, bloody urine is a symptom of bladder or kidney cancer.
Kidney cancer is one of the 10 most common cancers in the U.S. However, it is about twice as common in men than in women. The average age of people when they are diagnosed is 64 years. Kidney cancer is very uncommon in people younger than age 45.
When To See a Healthcare Provider
Keep in mind that not every new symptom you experience will be cancer. Nonetheless, you should pay close attention to changes in your body and new symptoms, including pain.
Bring any changes to the attention of a healthcare provider. Healthcare providers can take a complete medical history, do a physical exam, or order diagnostic tests to determine what's going on. The sooner you see a healthcare provider, the sooner you can put your mind at ease and/or get appropriate treatment.
In addition, don't skip regular screenings. The importance of regular cancer screening cannot be understated. Some cancers can be found early, before they have had a chance to grow and spread.
A Quick Review
Some symptoms, such as a lump in the breast or suspicious moles, create a sense of urgency in us as they can be warning signs of cancer. The only way to know for sure what they are is to see a healthcare provider.
Any new or unfamiliar symptoms—from swelling in your neck, ear pain, or skin sores—warrant a visit to a healthcare provider. Whether the symptom is cancer or not, the sooner you get diagnosed, the quicker you and a healthcare provider can take appropriate action.
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