Cancer symptoms you should never ignore, according to specialists

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It’s always important to be vigilant about potential cancer symptoms and get things checked quickly – and perhaps even more so right now – as routine cancer screenings and hospital referrals for tests have taken a big hit due to the pandemic.

A Cancer Research UK (CRUK) survey of GPs has just revealed more than half (53 per cent) are concerned that fewer older adults are contacting them with potential cancer symptoms, compared to before the pandemic. GPs are also worried about hearing less from patients with learning difficulties, those whose first language isn’t English, people from poorer backgrounds, ethnic minorities and those with existing health conditions.

“COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on cancer patients – cancer screening services were effectively paused during the pandemic and while they’ve now restarted, there’s still a substantial backlog of patients waiting for cancer screening and in need of hospital referrals,” says Dr Jodie Moffat, CRUK’s head of early diagnosis.

“Although some people may have to wait a little longer than usual, we urge anyone who’s noticed a change in their health, or has a symptom they’re worried about, to contact their GP to get their symptoms checked, and attend any tests their doctor thinks are needed. Don’t be tempted to put something new or different about your body down to getting older, or another health condition you might have. If you notice any unusual changes or anything that doesn’t go away, get in touch with your doctor.”

Here, cancer specialists outline the symptoms of three common cancers.

1. Prostate cancer
Prostate cancer is the most common cancer diagnosed in Australian men. The risk of developing prostate cancer before the age of 85 is one in 5, it’s most common in men aged 75-79, although it can also occur in those much younger. Approximately 3500 Australian men die of prostate cancer each year, however, if it’s caught early, prostate cancer is one of the most treatable cancers.

“It can be challenging to detect prostate cancer in its early stages as there are often very few, or sometimes no symptoms,” says Professor Heather Payne. “Warning signs usually start once the cancer has grown large enough to put pressure on the urethra [the tube that transports urine out of the body].

“Some of the most common early warning signs are often due to non-cancerous growth of the prostate, but it’s important to have these checked by a doctor as these problems can be treated, and it’s also important to be checked for prostate cancer.”

Prof. Payne says the main early symptoms of prostate cancer are needing to urinate more frequently during the day or night; taking a long time to start urinating; a slow or interrupted flow of urine; feeling as if your bladder hasn’t completely emptied; blood in urine; pain or discomfort when sitting due to an enlarged prostate.

In the later stages, if the cancer has spread to surrounding areas, such as the back, hips and pelvis, it can cause a dull ache or sharp stabbing sensations. A less common symptom is painful ejaculation and blood in the semen. A sudden and noticeable change in weight can also be a symptom of common cancers, such as prostate cancer, although weight loss can also indicate many less sinister conditions, too.

If you experience any of these signs, or notice a change in urinary habits, it’s important to seek medical advice immediately, stresses Prof. Payne. Men with a father or brother who’ve been diagnosed with prostate cancer are at higher risk of developing the disease, she points out.

“Most of the time the symptoms can be explained by other, less serious, conditions,” she says. “But it’s always best to visit your GP as soon as possible to rule prostate cancer out. Understandably, many men are reluctant to see their doctor with urinary issues for fear the consultation will be embarrassing. However, prostate cancer is very treatable in the early stages, so overcoming that worry and seeing your doctor early can be the difference between being diagnosed with easily treatable cancer as opposed to a more complicated late-stage form.”

2. Bladder cancer
Dr Constantine Alifrangis, a consultant oncologist at The Prostate Centre, says bladder cancer is the 11th most common cancer in Australia, with around 5000 new cases a year diagnosed. If caught early, bladder cancer is highly curable, he says – and even in more advanced stages there have been significant treatment improvements in recent years.

“While bladder cancer can have recognisable symptoms, there are other much more common conditions which can mimic them, and this can make early diagnosis more challenging,” explains Dr Alifrangis. “Urinary tract infections can often be mistaken for bladder cancer or vice-versa, because many of their symptoms overlap.”

Dr Alifrangis says bladder cancer symptoms include an increased need to urinate; pain when urinating; problems with emptying your bladder; visible blood in the urine.

“If there’s unexplained persistence of these symptoms after antibiotics, these can be warning signs which should be taken seriously and prompt further investigation,” he says. “Most of the time, these symptoms can be explained by other less serious conditions, but we would always recommend you discuss your symptoms with your GP, who will then decide whether further tests are needed.”

3. Lung cancer
Lung cancer was the fifth most commonly diagnosed cancer in Australia in 2016. It is estimated that it will remain the fifth most commonly diagnosed cancer in 2021. Around 9000 people die from it each year. It mainly affects older people, and it’s estimated more than four out of 10 people diagnosed with the condition are aged 75 and older.

Dr Martin Forster, consultant oncologist at The Harley Street Clinic, says there are often no noticeable symptoms in the early stages of lung cancer, but there are some warning signs to be aware of. These include a persistent cough that doesn’t go away after two to three weeks; recurring chest infections; chest pain exacerbated by coughing, laughing or breathing deeply; loss of appetite; wheezing; shortness of breath; coughing up blood; lack of energy.

Other less common symptoms may include difficulty swallowing (dysphagia); pain when swallowing; hoarseness; swelling of the face or neck, and unexplained weight loss.

Dr Forster warns that COVID-19 and lung cancer share the symptoms of a persistent cough and shortness of breath, and points out: “Referrals for lung cancer dropped significantly during the first lockdown, suggesting some patients with lung cancer may have delayed seeking help during the initial coronavirus lockdown period. But time, detection and diagnosis are key for improving outcomes for those affected by lung cancer. So, if you experience any of these symptoms, it’s important to seek advice from your GP as soon as possible.”

Have you kept up with all your regular medical appointments during the pandemic? Do you tend to go to the doctor as soon as you notice something might be wrong? Or do you put it off and see if symptoms improve?

– With PA

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Disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.

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Written by Lisa Salmon



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