Cancer symptoms: Top 14 early signs to look out for
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Consequently, silent cancers are often only caught at an advanced stage or incidentally, when you’re having investigations for another unrelated condition. They include bowel, cervical, liver, lung, ovarian, prostate and pancreatic cancer. Dr Ahmed El-Modir, consultant oncologist at Spire Little Aston Hospital, shared seven silent cancers and the risk factors behind them.
This refers to cancer of the large intestines (large bowel), which include your colon and rectum. Depending on where it starts, it’s also known as colon cancer or rectal cancer.
Dr El-Modir said: “Common symptoms include persistent abdominal pain, bloating, cramps and changes in your bowel habits (e.g. constipation, diarrhoea or thinner stools). You may also notice blood in your stools, have the urge to open your bowels even after recently passing stools, and unintentionally lose weight.
“The biggest risk factor for bowel cancer is age with nine out of 10 cases in those aged over 60. Your risk is also increased if you have a close family member (parent or sibling) who had bowel cancer before age 50.
“Lifestyle factors can increase your risk too, including smoking, heavy drinking, a sedentary lifestyle, being overweight, and following a diet low in fibre and high in processed or red meat.”
Cervical cancer refers to cancer of the entrance to the womb (cervix). Almost all cases are caused by the sexually transmitted infection (STI) human papillomavirus (HPV), said Dr El-Modir.
“Consequently, in the UK, all women over the age of 25 are offered regular cervical screening to test for HPV infection. HPV vaccine reduces the risk of cervical cancer.
“Common symptoms include vaginal bleeding in between your periods, during or after sex and after menopause, heavier periods, changes to your vaginal discharge, pain during sex and pain in your lower back, lower abdomen and pelvic area.
“Cervical cancer is more common in those aged under 45 and those with a weakened immune system, for example, due to HIV or AIDS. Your risk of cervical cancer is also higher if you’ve given birth to children before age 17, had multiple births, have not been vaccinated against HPV or previously had bladder, kidney, vaginal or vulvar cancer.”
Liver cancer can affect any part of your liver, which is located above your stomach on the right side of your body.
Dr El-Modir said: “Many symptoms of liver cancer relate to digestion issues such as nausea, vomiting, paler stools, darker urine and feeling full after eating only a small amount of food. You may notice a lump on the top right side of your abdomen, feel pain in this area, and experience abdominal swelling that isn’t caused by eating.
“Other symptoms include jaundice, where the whites of your eyes become yellow, pain in your right shoulder, unintentional weight loss, loss of appetite, fatigue, fever and feeling unwell.
“Your risk of liver cancer is higher if you are male, have a close relative (sibling or parent) who had liver cancer, or are aged over 60.
“Your risk is also raised if you have diabetes, gallstones, hepatitis, HIV, liver cirrhosis or are infected with liver flukes.”
Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the UK and mainly affects those aged over 40.
Dr El-Modir said: “Symptoms include a persistent cough, breathlessness when performing activities that usually aren’t a strain, coughing up blood, fatigue, loss of appetite, pain in your chest or shoulders, repeated or persistent chest infections, and unintentional weight loss.
“Seven out of 10 cases of lung cancer are caused by smoking. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which is more common among smokers, is also a major risk factor.
“Other risk factors for lung cancer include frequently breathing in diesel fumes and other toxic chemicals, such as arsenic, asbestos, coal fumes and silica.
“Exposure to high levels of radon gas, which is found in nature but can become concentrated in buildings, also increases your risk of developing lung cancer.”
Ovarian cancer refers to cancer of the egg-producing organs in women (ovaries).
Dr El-Modir said: “Many of the symptoms of ovarian cancer overlap with period symptoms, which is why how often you experience these symptoms is important. Common symptoms include abdominal bloating, back pain, fatigue and persistent pain or tenderness in your pelvic area.
“Other symptoms include constipation, diarrhoea, loss of appetite, feeling full after eating only a small amount, unintentional weight loss, sudden urges to urinate and urinating more often.
“Women aged over 45 are most at risk, as well as women with diabetes or endometriosis, women carrying faulty BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes and those with a close female relative (mother or sister) who had ovarian cancer. Smoking and being overweight also increases your risk as does taking hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to treat menopause.”
Pancreatic cancer can affect any part of your pancreas, which sits behind your stomach where your ribs meet at the bottom of your breastbone.
Dr El-Modir said: “Many symptoms of pancreatic cancer relate to digestion, such as bloating, changes in your stools, constipation, diarrhoea, nausea and vomiting. You may also experience back pain and pain in your upper abdomen, which feels better when you lean forward and worse when you lie down or eat.
“Other symptoms include jaundice, where the whites of your eyes become yellow, unintentional weight loss, loss of appetite, fever and fatigue.
“Your risk of pancreatic cancer is higher if you smoke, drink heavily, are overweight or aged over 75. Although most cases of pancreatic cancer do not run in families, you are at increased risk if a close relative (parent or sibling) had pancreatic cancer or if you carry a faulty BRCA2 gene.
“Certain medical conditions also increase your risk, including chronic (long-term) pancreatitis, diabetes, gallstones and metabolic syndrome.”
Prostate cancer refers to cancer of the prostate gland in men, which is a walnut-sized gland that makes the fluid part of semen. It is located at the base of the bladder and surrounds the tube through which urine leaves your body (urethra).
Dr El-Modir said: “Symptoms of prostate cancer usually only occur once the tumour is large enough to press against the urethra. Symptoms include difficulty urinating, needing to urinate more often and the sensation that your bladder is not completely empty even after urinating.
“Your risk of prostate cancer increases with age and consequently, is more common in men aged over 50, with most cases occurring in men aged 75–79.
“You are also at greater risk if you are overweight or obese, or have a close relative (father or brother) who had prostate cancer. Men of Afro-Caribbean descent have a higher risk than Caucasian men, while men of Asian descent have a lower risk than Caucasian men.”
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