Reading the signs: Are the symptoms you’re feeling early signs of cancer? Why women ignore the signs, and what they may mean.
While women are busy caring for their children, their clients or both, there’s one important individual they tend to neglect — themselves. More frequently than not, women don’t make their own health a priority, ignoring symptoms that could be early signs of cancer.
“Women frequently ignore symptoms because they are simply busy,” says Dr. Daniel Maki, M.D., director of breast imaging at Scottsdale Medical Imaging (SMIL). “They are head of the household, often responsible for so many others that they put their own health on the back burner.”
What’s worse is some women believe the symptoms will just go away, so they ignore or deny the symptoms, according to Dr. Clayton Palowy, M.D., medical oncologist with Ironwood Cancer & Research Centers in Chandler.
“It’s human nature to ignore symptoms because you don’t want to view the worst, and you start rationalizing them as natural causes,” says Dr. Mike Janicek, M.D., medical director of the Cancer Genetic Risk Assessment Program at the Virginia G. Piper Cancer Center at Scottsdale Healthcare Medical Center. “I would say it’s the slowness of some of the symptoms that may sneak under the radar and makes it difficult for women to pay attention to symptoms, when in retrospect, it’s clear to them.”
Many symptoms such as bloating, irregular vaginal bleeding and pelvic pain seem typical, but, in reality, these and a few common symptoms that could be signs of various types of cancers.
Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among women and is the second-leading cause of cancer death among women, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
In the U.S. in 2012, it was estimated by the National Cancer Institute that there were nearly 227,000 new cases of breast cancer and more than 39,000 deaths.
The most common complaint or symptom is a lump in the breast.
“Depending on what the lump (cancer) invades during its growth, it may cause a variety of different symptoms based on what it grows into,” says Dr. Maki.
“If the lump invades into the nipple or skin, it can begin causing retraction or dimpling,” he adds. “If the lump invades a blood vessel and milk duct, it can cause blood to be discharged from the nipple. If it invades nerve fibers, it can cause pain. If it invades the skin, it can cause thickening or change in texture of the skin itself.”
Other symptoms include:
- Discharge from the nipple (particularly a bloody discharge)
- Nipple inversion or retraction
- Skin dimpling (along one edge of the breast) or retraction
“Sometimes patients even describe simply a ‘thickening’ of an area of the breast rather than a discrete lump,” says Dr. Maki.
Palowy says that breast changes such as a red breast is an early sign of inflammatory breast cancer and can be mistaken for infection.
Symptoms mistaken for:
Many of the symptoms are often attributed to cysts or one’s menstrual cycle, according to Maki. And in a large number of patients with lumps or pain, the assumption may often be correct.
“However, occasionally these symptoms do unfortunately represent early stages of breast cancer, and any new breast symptoms should always be brought to the attention of one’s doctor,” Dr. Maki says.
Mammograms and screenings are the best way to find breast cancer early. Also, be aware of your family history and risk factors. The National Cancer Institute has a Breast Cancer Risk Assessment Tool helps estimate a woman’s risk of developing invasive breast cancer. Visit cancer.gov/bcrisktool.
All women are at risk for cervical (uterine cervix) cancer, which forms in the tissue of the cervix (the organ connecting the uterus and vagina) and is almost always caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. However, it occurs more often in women over the age of 30.
In the U.S. in 2012, the National Cancer Institute estimated more than 12,000 new cases of cervical cancer and more than 4,000 deaths.
- Bleeding with intercourse: This is often mistaken for “just too much friction,” according to Dr. Deborah Wilson, M.D., of Scottsdale.
- Bleeding after intercourse: Mistaken for the start of one’s period.
- Irregular or heavy vaginal bleeding pre-menopausal: Mistaken for an abnormal period and could also be a symptom of uterine cancer.
- Bleeding after menopause: Mistaken for an unexpected period and could also be a symptom of uterine cancer.
Two tests can help prevent or find cervical cancer early: a Pap test (or a pap smear) and the HPV test.
Ovarian cancer forms in the tissues of the ovary, with most ovarian cancers either ovarian epithelial carcinomas (cancer that begins in the cells on the surface of the ovary) or malignant germ cell tumors (cancer that begins in egg cells).
The National Cancer Institute estimates that there were more than 22,000 new cases of cervical cancer and more than 15,000 deaths in 2012 in the United States.
- Bloating: Mistaken for gas pain.
- Pelvic pain: Mistaken for indigestion.
- Early satiety
- Chronic indigestion: Mistaken for food intolerance.
As with breast cancer, know your family history and inherited risk and changes, such as changes in the breast cancer susceptibility genes BRCA1 and BRCA2. However, according to the CDC, most breast and ovarian cancers are primarily due to aging, the environment and lifestyle.
“Ovarian cancer has no screening test, so that’s the one that most people focus on the symptoms,” says Janicek. “By the time you get bloating and some of the other symptoms, it’s often in its advanced stages.”
Know your history
The No. 1 symptom to consider? Family history, according Janicek.
“Family history is an unusual but very important symptom,” says Janicek. “And it’s not just for breast, but for ovarian and lynch syndrome. People don’t think of family history as a symptom, but it is. If you have a strong family history of breast or ovarian cancer, you may be at genetic risk for cancer.”
Compile your family’s health history, and go as far back as three generations. Janicek says to let other family members know when another family member gets cancer. Not only will you and your family be informed, but it will also help the doctor look for any patterns of disease in the family.
Visit My Family Health Portrait’s website at familyhistory.hhs.gov to help collect and track your family health history.
Collect the following information about both your mother’s and father’s sides of the family:
- Number of close relatives with breast or ovarian cancer: mother, sister(s), daughter(s), grandmothers, aunt(s), niece(s), and granddaughter(s)
- Ages when the cancers were diagnosed
- Whether anyone had cancer of both breasts
- Breast cancer in male relatives
- Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jewish ancestry
For more information about cancer treatment and prevention, visit:
Scottsdale Medical Imaging
Scottsdale Medical Center
3501 N. Scottsdale Rd., #130, Scottsdale
Ironwood Cancer & Research Centers
695 S. Dobson Rd., Chandler
Scottsdale Healthcare Medical Center
Scottsdale Gynecologic Oncology
10197 N. 92nd St., #101, Scottsdale
Deborah Wilson, M.D., Gynecology
8997 E. Desert Cove, #105, Scottsdale