People often ask me: “When considering cancer, what symptoms or complaints should I look for?” Unfortunately, there is no one concrete answer to this question. We currently know that there are around 200 different types of tumours, each with varying speeds of growth and progression, each with different reactions to treatment and each with a variety of prognoses. Therefore, I’ll concentrate on those complaints, which, in my experience, most people don’t usually consider significant health problems. Furthermore, this applies to both healthy people as well as people who have already suffered from cancer. It’s important to bear in mind that people who have already had cancer in the past are more likely to develop another tumour than people who have never had cancer. For this reason, one must continue to be vigilant and to look out for any unusual symptoms for the rest of their lives.
It’s impossible to list all of the potential symptoms and complaints that could be an indication of a malignant tumour. However, it will be enough to at least get to know some of the following. How often should you do this? It would be great to carefully check at least twice a year, but once a year will suffice for people over 50. This is, of course, a conditional limit. The main thing is to honestly answer yes or no and should you answer in the affirmative that you be willing to visit a doctor.
In the vast majority of these cases, your complaint will be related to some non-cancerous ailment. However, this game of question and answer could be a very important step on the road to an early diagnosis. Moreover, the so-called Green Corridor will help you to get all of the necessary examinations and to see the appropriate specialists as soon as possible.
If these questions seem like a waste of time right now, return to them after a while when you’re in a better mood or when you feel you can be more open with yourself. You can even make it a question and answer quiz with your loved ones. This will also help you to keep track of whether a family member has visited a doctor or not.
Difficulty with urination or bowel movements
Difficulties with urination often include painful urination, changes in urine flow – irregularity or lack of force, blood in your urine or an unusual colour, lower abdominal pain. Given modern toilets today, it’s not always possible to look at your urine. If you have any of these symptoms, but can’t take a good look at your urine, then simply urinate in a glass jar and take a look. Urine is usually light to dark yellow in colour depending on the hour, the medication you may be using or the food you’ve been eating. If the urine looks orange, rosy or even red, cloudy or has an unpleasant odour, you should definitely consult your doctor. A urine analysis is an easy and quick method that could also detect if any microscopic blood is present, which can’t be seen by the naked eye. The doctor may ask you to see a gynaecologist or urologist and may ask men to get a PSA test.
Bowel movement trouble is usually associated with irregular bowel movements, when diarrhoea occurs as well as constipation, pain while defecating, the presence of mucous or blood in the faeces, unexplained stomach bloating, stomach growling, an urgent need to go to the toilet, which is followed only by the expelling of gas, changes in the shape of your stool (stringy), changes in colour (black, similar to tar) and faecal stains in your underwear after relieving yourself of gas.
Where? Let’s start from head to toe. So then – have you coughed up blood (red spots or strings in your sputum or perhaps it’s rosy or frothy)? Have you had episodes of vomiting when blood was mixed together with the contents of your vomit? Do you salivate more than usual?
Have you noticed any discharge from your nipples? Menopausal women should definitely not have any discharge, especially if it’s mixed with blood, or if it’s only discharged from one nipple. Most women who menstruate can secrete at least a small amount of fluid by squeezing their nipple. If they’re secreted from both sides, from a number of different outlets and don’t contain any blood, then you probably don’t have to worry about the possibility of having cancer. The colour of the discharge – greenish, blueish or even black – usually doesn’t indicate a tumour. However, if you have bloody discharges or secretions of any kind from a nipple during menopause, then this could be a strong indication of a tumour and you shouldn’t hesitate to consult your gynaecologist.
Do you have any unusual discharge from your vagina – bloody, white, thick, watery, perhaps with an unpleasant smell? Do these discharges appear between cycles or after sex? Let a gynaecologist determine the cause.
Do you have any unusual discharge from your anus – bloody, pure blood or with mucous? Unfortunately, attempts at self-diagnosis and writing off symptoms as haemorrhoids have ended as full-blown rectal tumours in quite a few patients. Consult a doctor – general practitioner or proctologist – before using suppositories or any topical creams.
Skin lesions that won’t heal
It’s quite common for people to not pay the proper attention to seemingly small things that don’t seem to heal, such as prolonged skin lesions, cracks, scaling or small growths. All kinds of over-the-counter ointments are applied to the affected area or perhaps some other home remedy is attempted, because many people feel uncomfortable visiting a doctor for such a supposedly trivial problem. Malignant skin tumours often begin as seemingly harmless growths – redness, localised scaling, a semi-translucent nodule, later a sore that won’t heal, but which gradually grows larger. Usually there is no pain or itching, or if there is then it’s very minimal. If the blemish is located on the face, then friends or family usually take notice of it. In the early stages skin cancer is not only treatable, but it can be done without any major scarring. The larger the tumour, the greater the negative cosmetic effect will be. If you’ve noticed something suspicious on your skin, don’t hesitate to show it to your family doctor or dermatologist. Definitely don’t feel embarrassed about troubling your doctor about it. Be especially mindful of elderly family members as basal-cell and squamous cell carcinomas most often develop in one’s later years. This, however, doesn’t mean that they can’t develop in younger people. The symptoms are similar, so it’s best to check any irregular skin growths at any age to make sure that they’re not malignant.
Unusual growths, tissue thickening
Let’s start from head to toe. First, look at yourself in the mirror and see if you can spot asymmetric moles or unusual growths – on your face, neck, above your collar bone or elsewhere. You don’t require any special training to check yourself – it’s enough to gently stroke each side of your neck, gently squeeze your breasts (for women), testicles (for men), armpits and groin area. Even if a growth doesn’t hurt or inconvenience you in any way, we’re often aware of its existence. It’s another thing altogether if we underestimate its potential danger. So what is it exactly that we’re looking for?
When feeling your neck area – are there any nodules or growths (possibly enlarged lymph nodes)? When checking your breasts, are there any lumps, nodules, concretions, abnormal differences in size when comparing both breasts? You most likely won’t be able to assess the significance of any potential abnormalities, which is why it’s best to see a doctor. In the event that you notice any changes in your breasts, you should begin with a visit to your gynaecologist or family doctor, who will, if necessary, recommend any further examinations. In Latvia, women aged 50 – 69 receive a state-sponsored X-ray or mammogram free of charge. Please don’t ignore the invitation you receive in the post, because it could potentially save your life. Sometimes women are shocked that free mammograms aren’t also offered to younger or even older women. The reason is simple. Nearly half of all breast tumour cases in Latvia are diagnosed in women in this specific 50 – 69 age group. If, however, you have visible symptoms you shouldn’t hesitate to consult your family doctor at any age. If cancer is suspected, you’ll immediately be admitted to the so-called Green Corridor for expedited examinations and diagnostics to make a precise diagnosis.
By feeling your arms, legs, stomach and sides, pay special attention to any lumps you may discover underneath the skin. However, when checking the scrotum and testicles feel around for any hard bumps. Even if they don’t hurt or bother you, you should definitely see your family doctor or urologist. An ultrasound examination is a simple and convenient method of determining whether the hardened bump contains liquid (which usually indicates a benign growth) or denser tissues, which would require a more detailed examination and perhaps a tissue sample. The prognosis for a testicular tumour largely depends on its histology and, of course, how quickly one visits a doctor. Unfortunately, in Latvia young men are often reluctant to discuss this problem with anyone, which is why it’s important to understand that early and sometimes even late-stage testicular tumours can usually be treated. By allowing the cancer to develop or by refusing therapy, the prognosis, sadly, becomes grim.