The early bird

9 February 2014

Why you should check symptoms that don’t go away...

Niggly health problems that seem trivial but never seem to go away could be a sign of something more serious such as cancer. In most cases it will likely be nothing, but better to be safe than sorry.

The message from cancer charities is clear: early diagnosis greatly increases your chances of survival – the sooner symptoms are checked the better.



It’s no bother

‘Doctors are always thinking about cancer and looking out for it,’ says GP Dr Emmajane Down. ‘We never want to miss a cancer diagnosis and have spent many years training so that we can spot the difference between serious and non-serious conditions. We don’t mind if you are worried and want to be checked out, or if you make an appointment and it turns out to be nothing.’

These are some of the more common persistent symptoms you shouldn’t ignore – whether they are cancer or some less serious treatable disease.

Red flags not to be ignored

  • Lumps:‘Cancer doesn’t go away on its own, so any new lump or a symptom that persists longer than a few weeks should be examined by your doctor,’ emphasises Dr Down. ‘Remember, cancer found early gives a much better chance of being treated and cured.’ 
  • Lumps in the breast can be a sign of breast cancer or just benign cysts. Get them checked as soon as you notice them. Breast Cancer Research says 90 per cent of women with stage 1 breast cancers survive five years or more compared with 50 per cent with stage 3 tumours.

    Blood in your stools: Bowel Cancer UK says one in four bowel cancer cases are only diagnosed as emergency hospital admissions when the cancer is usually more advanced. If diagnosed early, over 90 per cent of bowel cancer cases can be successfully treated. Dr Down says: ‘Blood in the stools is one warning sign of bowel cancer. Haemorrhoids (piles) could be the culprit but it’s safer to have a diagnosis early. Other warning signs are new changes in your daily bowel habit – new constipation or diarrhoea (or both) that are persisting should be reported to your doctor.’ He will then examine you and do some simple tests to rule out cancer and bowel disease.

  • Unexplained weight loss: ‘Unexplained weight loss should always be reported to your doctor,’ says Dr Down. ‘If you reduce the amount of food you eat, you will lose weight, but some serious diseases can cause weight loss despite eating the same amount of food. All types of cancer can eventually cause weight loss, but illnesses such as hyperthyroidism can also be the culprit. This can be diagnosed with a simple blood test and is treatable and curable.’

More symptoms that need checking out

  • Persistent tiredness and fatigue: ‘Cancer often causes tiredness and fatigue, but so can simple treatable conditions such as low iron levels (anaemia) and an underactive thyroid gland (hypothyroidism),’ says Dr Down. Either way, see your GP.
  • A persistent cough or hoarse voice: ‘If you have a cough that persists for more than three weeks, get it checked by your GP. It will probably be inflammation or infection,’ says Dr Down. ‘But it could be lung cancer and the earlier you find out, the more likely you’ll have a good outcome from treatment. If you cough up blood, see your GP as soon as possible.’ Lung cancer outcomes are greatly improved by early diagnosis and treatment; five-year survival rates are up to 73 per cent for stage 1 cancers and up to 13 per cent for stage 4 according to Lung Cancer UK. A hoarse voice lasting more than three weeks should be checked out. It may be inflammation of the larynx (laryngitis), but cancer of the voice box needs to be excluded.
  • New moles or changes in moles: ‘All moles that are new or have changed in any way need to be seen by your doctor.  If a mole is getting bigger or changed in colour or shape it is not normal and skin cancer needs to be excluded,’ advises Dr Down.
  • Mouth ulcers that don’t heal: A mouth ulcer that doesn’t heal after two to three weeks is not normal. ‘Any new swelling or lump in the mouth lasting more than three weeks should be shown to your doctor to rule out mouth cancer,’ says Dr Down.

Male and female problems

The following sex-specific symptoms should be investigated to eliminate cancer.

  • Difficulties passing urine. Early signs of prostate cancer in men are similar to those for a benign prostate swelling. Only a doctor can tell the difference. Early signs of prostate problems include difficulty passing urine or passing urine frequently at night.
  • Unexplained vaginal bleeding. Bleeding between periods or after sex in women can be an early sign of cervical cancer. ‘It could be just an infection or a benign lesion of the cervix causing the bleeding,’ explains Dr Down. ‘Only an examination by a doctor can tell the difference between them.’

If you experience any of the above persistently, contact your GP.

For more information on cancer, visit our Cancer Centre or post any questions to our experts who will reply as soon as possible.