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Cancer: when to get a medical opinion

by Shubham Pant
Wednesday, January 09, 2013 at 16 : 20

Cancer is believed to be the second most common cause of death after heart disease. Its symptoms can be similar to those of common diseases. For example unexplained weight loss may be an indication of cancer. Typically people ignore these early symptoms confusing them with other common conditions. Sometimes they are scared to consult a doctor. It is very important to detect cancer before it spreads, as treatment is most effective when cancer is found early. For example, if a breast lump is found at an early stage by examination, timely treatment can result in long cancer free survival. Always remember that every symptom could be explained by a harmless condition. Still, it is important to be aware of the following symptoms of cancer and get them investigated.

Unexplained loss of weight: Substances released by cancer cells can result in weight loss. This is non-specific and can also be the result of a prolonged infection. Still, an unexplained and unintended weight loss over a six-month period needs to be investigated.

Fatigue: Patients with cancer experience ongoing tiredness. This could be caused by anemia (low number of red blood cells in your body) due to an underlying disease like colon cancer, etc. Fatigue increases as cancer progresses.

Pain: Continuous pain that does not go away in a few months and keeps on getting worse may result from cancer. Bony pain may be a sign of cancer of the bone or a cancer that has started from a place like the prostate and has now traveled to the bone.

A persistent cough or blood in the saliva: This is especially relevant for long-term smokers, and is a common sign of lung cancer. Infectious diseases like tuberculosis can also present this way.

Change in bowel habits or blood in the stool: Diarrhea that does not go away, long term constipation or change in the size of the stool (example pencil thin stools) can signify colon cancer. Blood in the stools could be due to hemorrhoids, but even this needs to be investigated and treated by a doctor.

Blood in the urine: Blood in the urine is typically due to kidney stones or a urinary infection. However, blood in the urine not accompanied by pain can be a sign of bladder cancer.

Lump in any part of the body: Lumps in the breast may be non cancerous, but still need to be evaluated thoroughly. Women are advised to conduct frequent breast examinations, especially if they have a family history of breast or ovarian cancer. Discharges from breasts are common, but if the discharge is bloody or only from one nipple, further evaluation is needed. Testicular cancer presents as a painless lump on the testicles. Many other cancers like those of the lymph nodes can present this way. Lumps most frequently are harmless and lymph nodes could be swollen due to an infection. A lump should be reported to your doctor if it is new and remains enlarged for more than a month or a previous lump that is rapidly growing in size.

Changes in a mole or a wart: Any mole or wart that changes in size, shape, color or if its edges get irregular may be cancerous. This should be reported to your regular doctor or a skin doctor immediately.

Sores that do not heal: Sores normally heal quickly. If a sore fails to heal, it should be evaluated by a doctor. Non-healing mouth sores and persistent white or red patches in the mouth could be a sign of cancer. This is VERY IMPORTANT in patients who smoke or chew tobacco and should be evaluated as soon as possible.

Though these symptoms are non specific, if they meet the '2P' criterion (That is, if they are Persistent and Progressive), you should seek medical advice. Do not be afraid to visit your doctor as early detection may make all the difference. It is never too late to quit smoking, tobacco chewing and excessive alcohol intake. Remember, prevention is always better than cure.



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More about Shubham Pant

Dr Shubham Pant is Assistant Professor of Medicine & Director of Clinical Trials, Hematology/ Oncology Section of the Peggy and Charles Stephenson Oklahoma Cancer Center in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. He has jump-started his own fitness program and this year, wants to inspire us to follow suit... From health tips, to videoblogging his half-marathon training, The Doctor is In, on ibnlive.com.

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