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Signs of Cancer in Women: Symptoms You Can't Ignore

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See Your Doctor

A woman talks with her doctor.

Women are usually more diligent than men when it comes to their own health care. But many women ignore symptoms that may be indicative of cancer. If a new health problem arises please get it checked out. The sooner a problem is explained the sooner treatment can be begun. Many forms of cancer can be cured if they are found early.

The following slides discuss some of the symptoms women should talk to their doctor about if they experience them. Just because a woman has these symptoms does not mean she has cancer, but it is important to have a doctor's evaluation to rule it out.

No.1 - Unexplained Weight Loss

A woman seems concerned about her weight loss.

Unexplained weight loss could be a symptom of a cancer. Many women would be pleased to lose weight without trying, but when a woman loses weight without diet or exercise this should be checked out. Cancer cells often use much of the body's energy supply, which can lead to this weight loss. A doctor will run tests to rule out cancer and determine if the weight loss is caused by another condition such as an overactive thyroid.

No. 2 - Bloating

A woman with a bloated stomach rests on her bed.

Many women experience bloating as a normal part of their monthly cycle. But if bloating includes every day and lasts for several weeks, consult your doctor. Signs of ovarian cancer include bloating and other digestive issues, abdominal or pelvic pain, feeling full quickly even if you have not eaten much, and urinary urgency. Your doctor can order a CT scan and perform blood tests to aid in diagnosis.

No 3. - Breast Changes

A young woman undergoes a mammogram exam.

Women are told to do regular breast self-exams and check for lumps, but there are other breast changes to look out for. Symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer include redness and thickening of the skin on the breast. Many women have lumps that come and go during their cycle. A new lump that does not go away for about a month, but instead is slowly enlarging needs to be checked out right away. Other breast changes might include a rash that persists for weeks, changes in the nipple, or discharge when you are not breastfeeding. Tell your doctor about any breast changes you notice. Your doctor will examine your breasts and may order tests such as a mammogram, ultrasound, MRI, and biopsy.

No. 4 - Between-Period Bleeding or Other Unusual Bleeding

A woman is concerned about between-period bleeding.

If you normally have regular periods, bleeding in between periods is a cause for concern that needs to be checked. So does bleeding after menopause. An early sign and symptom of endometrial cancer is often spotting between periods.

Women also tend to ignore bleeding from the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, which can be mistaken for menstrual bleeding. GI bleeding may be a sign of colorectal cancer.

Tell your doctor about either of these types of bleeding. Your doctor may order an ultrasound or biopsy to check for endometrial or colorectal cancers.

No. 5 - Skin Changes

A woman checks the skin on her leg.

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the U.S. Moles that are changing, irregular in shape or color, or asymmetrical are common signs of skin cancer. But other skin changes can be signs too, including changes in skin pigmentation, bleeding, or excessive scaling. Because melanoma, a form of skin cancer, can be aggressive, don't wait more than a few weeks after noticing changes in a mole to see a doctor.

No. 6 - Difficulty Swallowing

A woman drinks a glass of water.

Difficulty swallowing may be a symptom of a gastrointestinal (GI) cancer, such as esophageal cancer. Tell your doctor about your symptoms. Your doctor will perform a physical, and will likely order tests such as a chest X-ray or endoscopy.

No. 7 - Blood in the Wrong Place

Unusual bleeding should be investigated.

See a doctor if you notice blood in any "wrong" place. Blood in stool may be something benign such as a hemorrhoid, or it may be a sign of colon cancer. In this case, your doctor may order a colonoscopy. Blood in the urine may be mistaken for menstrual blood, but it could be bladder or kidney cancer. Coughing up blood should also be mentioned to your doctor.

No. 8 - Gnawing Abdominal Pain and Depression

A woman has abdominal pain.

When depression is coupled with abdominal pain, it may be a symptom of pancreatic cancer. The connection is not completely understood but if you experience these symptoms tell your doctor to rule out possible cancer, and to get treatment for depression if needed.

No. 9 - Indigestion

A woman experiences indigestion.

When indigestion is not due to an identifiable cause such as a fatty meal or pregnancy, this may be a cause for concern. Unexplained indigestion may be an early sign of cancer of the esophagus, stomach, or throat.

No. 10 - Mouth Changes

A woman has a dental exam.

White patches inside the mouth or white spots on the tongue may be signs of a precancerous condition called leukoplakia that can lead to oral cancer. This condition is more common in smokers. Tell your doctor or dentist if you notice these patches.

No. 11 - Pain

A woman holds her head in pain.

Unexplained pain may be a sign of cancer. Most of the time it is not, but pain that persists and has no known cause should be checked by a doctor.

No. 12 - Changes in Lymph Nodes

A woman feels her neck.

Enlarged lymph nodes or lumps on your lymph nodes under your armpit or in your neck may be a sign of possible cancer. If the lump is increasing in size and has been present for over a month, see a doctor. It may be due to an infection, but it could be a sign of something else such as cancer.

No. 13 - Fever

A woman with a fever checks her temperature with a thermometer.

Fever that is unexplained such as by a cold or flu could be a sign of cancer. An early sign of some blood cancers such as leukemias and lymphomas is fever. Fever may also occur when a cancer has spread (metastasized) from the original site to other parts of the body.

Also alert your doctor if you notice yellowing of the skin or eyes (jaundice) or a change in the color of your stool.

If you have unexplained fever your doctor may order a chest X-ray, CT scan, MRI, or other tests.

No. 14 - Fatigue

A woman suffers from fatigue.

Fatigue is a symptom of many illnesses and medical conditions, but it can also be a sign of some cancers such as leukemia or some colon or stomach cancers. Tell your doctor if you experience unexplained fatigue.

No. 15 - Persistent Cough

A woman coughs.

If you do not have a cold, allergies, the flu, and you have a prolonged cough lasting more than three to four weeks, consult your doctor, especially if you smoke. Your doctor will examine your throat, check your lung function, and possibly order X-rays.

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