Do you know a sign or symptom of cancer?
Yesterday Cancer Research UK published a survey of 4,000 people that showed that 1/7 people didn’t know one sign or symptom of cancer. This seems a little hard to believe, you would think that most people realise a lump could be a sign of cancer. However people weren’t given a list to choose from and were asked for something “off the top of their heads”.
The Cancer Research UK press release is called “Brits risk late cancer diagnosis because of poor symptom awareness” 10 % of women couldn’t name a sign or symptom compared with 19 % of men. Men tend to have their cancers diagnosed later and have poorer survival rates than women, this may be part of the reason why.
As always, NHS Choices has written an excellent report on this survey called “People don’t know the signs of cancer“, they point out that we don’t know exactly how the survey was conducted, for example if people were in an environment where they felt comfortable answering that question (e.g. were they phoned at home or asked in a busy shopping mall?).
One thing to mention is that there are more than 200 different forms of cancer and these can cause many different symptoms. There is no ONE sign or symptom of all cancers, likewise there is no ONE test that can diagnose cancer. Many of these symptoms can be caused by other things, if you have one of these signs or symptoms it does NOT mean you definitely have cancer, it DOES mean you should mention it to your GP.
Unexplained weight loss, i.e. if you are losing weight and you are not trying to diet. As a guide if you lose 5% of your body weight in 1 month (or 10% of your body weight in 6 months) and you don’t know why, you should mention it to your doctor. In practical terms, this means if you are about 10 stone (146 lbs or 63 kg) and you lose half a stone (7lbs or 3 kg) in one month or a stone (14lbs or 6 kg) in 6 months you should ask your GP to investigate. There is a handy stone kg converter here. If you are losing weight and getting night sweats, do get his checked out.
An unusual lump or swelling anywhere in the body (this includes lumps in your breast or testicles as well as lumps in your armpit, neck, groin or abdomen).
Changes in the size, shape or colour of a mole, interestingly only 16% of people mentioned this as a possible sign of cancer, although often harmless changes in a mole could be a sign of skin cancer and should be checked out.
Ulcers or sores that won’t heal (including those in the mouth and on the skin), particularly if they last for more than a few weeks. The skin in your mouth renews itself about every fortnight, so get any long term changes checked.
Blood in your urine (pee) or faeces (poo), many people worry that this is a sign of cancer but most of the time this is caused by something like piles or an infection.
Changes in your bowel (poo) habits that last longer than six weeks, Why 6 weeks? Well, most cases of diarrhoea (loose watery bowel motions) are caused by a stomach bug or food poisoning, which usually clears up within a week or two. If you notice a change in your bowel movements that is consistent (i.e. it doesn’t change and stays the same for weeks) speak to your GP, especially if you are over 50 years old as this may be a sign of bowel cancer.
Problems passing urine (pee) if you need to go to the toilet right away or you are always going to the toilet to pee, tell your doctor, it is most likely caused by an infection. Get it seen too, it’s not pleasant and can usually be easily treated. This could also be a sign of diabetes so it is worth getting it seen too. If you find it difficult or painful to pass urine this should also be checked.
A cough, or hoarse voice lasting longer than 3 weeks should be investigated, especially if you are a smoker, although if you don’t smoke still mention it to your doctor. Coughing up blood should also be checked as this could be a sign of several different throat or lung diseases.
Problems swallowing, this can be caused by a number of things, not just cancer as can persistent indigestion but they do need to be investigated. If you don’t enjoy eating it can really affect your quality of life so it is worth mentioning this.
Unexplained persistent pain for 4 weeks or more, i.e pain that is constant and doesn’t “come and go”. Pain can be caused by a whole host of things, it’s a warning sign that something isn’t right. No-one likes to be in pain so if this is something that affects you please mention it to your GP.
What if you mention it to your GP and they don’t know what the cause is? This happens a lot more than you might think! Especially with things that are really common (like blood in your poo). If you are in doubt, go back and mention it to your GP again or ask to see a different GP at your practice. You might still not get an answer, but most cancers are diagnosed within 3 months of a “warning sign”. See “Things that you should get checked out” for more information on this.
Cancer Research UK produce leaflets on the signs of cancer, you can read the pdfs on their website (if you have Acrobat Reader) or ask them to send you a copy in the post (phone 0808 800 4040) .
Use the “minus” sign at the top of each page to make the leaflets easier to read.
If you had been asked to name a sign or symptom of cancer would you have been able to? Did any of the signs of cancer in the list surprise you? Remember the earlier a cancer is caught the more easily it can be treated, so if in doubt, check it out!