While we understand the seriousness of cancer, most of us tend to detach ourselves from the disease. We never think it could happen to us.
Common myths, including the beliefs that cancer only strikes the elderly or those with a family history of cancer, feed misperceptions and lack of attention to warning signs.
While people with a faulty cancer gene are at a higher risk, anyone at any age can develop the disease.
The cancers that affect only women are ovarian cancer, endometrial (uterine) cancer and vaginal cancer. Breast cancer, although also affecting men, primarily and largely occurs in women.
While regular checkups and cancer screenings are always recommended, a key step toward early identification of any disease is knowing your body well. Body changes are often indicative of underlying major diseases.
Here are 10 signs and symptoms of cancer that women shouldn’t ignore.
1. Breast Changes
Even if you undergo regular mammography checkups, some signs of breast cancer may go undetected or appear between your regular screenings.
A hard knot or thick lump on your breast or underneath your arm can be cancerous and should not be ignored.
If one or both of your breasts experiences emanating warmth, redness, swelling, soreness, rashes or darkening, these might also be symptoms of cancer.
Alternatively or additionally, the size of your breast may change – one may appear bigger than the other– or the skin on your breasts may pucker up. These are also important signs.
Often, merely squeezing the nipple can induce a liquid discharge and may not be related to breast cancer. However, if the discharge is bloody or clear (not milky), occurs from only one breast and without any pressure on the nipple (such as squeezing), it may be indicative of cancer.
2. Abnormal Bleeding Pattern
Vaginal bleeding that occurs between periods or after menopause is considered abnormal. Bleeding during sexual intercourse, abnormally heavy menstrual bleeding or a cycle that lasts unusually long are also a cause for concern and should be discussed with your doctor.
While these could be symptoms of an endometrial polyp (a growth in the inner lining of the uterus), they could also be indicative of endometrial or cervical cancer.
If you have gone through menopause (absence of periods for a year) and you experience bloody discharge, spotting or blood clot-discharge, consult your doctor right away.
Post-menopausal bleeding incurs a 64-fold increase in endometrial cancer risk, and women with recurrent post-menopausal bleeding are at a higher risk of endometrial cancer than women who do not experience such bleeding, according to a 2003 study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.
Bloating is a common issue that occurs during menstruation. It also is a condition that could be attributed to a number of other causes, such as indigestion and overeating.
However, as a woman, if you experience perpetual bloating lasting three weeks or more, it could be a sign of ovarian cancer and you should consult your doctor right away.
In a 2001 study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, 71 percent of 168 women diagnosed with ovarian cancer reported unusual bloating and fullness of the abdomen.
Also, a 2004 study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association notes that patient delays are a major cause of advanced ovarian cancer, and the 5-year survival rate with early detection of the diseases is 70 to 90 percent compared to a mere 20 to 30 percent in advanced stage diseases.
4. Pelvic or Abdominal Pain
It is not uncommon for women suffering from pelvic or abdominal pain to associate it with menstrual cramps or indigestion.
However, frequent abdominal or pelvic pain could indicate endometrial, ovarian or vaginal cancer. This kind of pain may or may not occur with irregular periods or bleeding between cycles. However, when it does, the risk for an underlying cancer may become greater.
Patients with ovarian cancer reported pelvic or abdominal pain as a common symptom of the disease, according to a 2006 study published in the Cancer journal.
5. Vaginal Bumps & Itching
Bumps on the exterior of the vagina can be simply pimples resulting from poor hygiene or wearing tight clothing, or genital warts. In some cases, however, they can be a sign of cancer.
Although the American Cancer Society notes that only 4 percent of cancers in the U.S. are vulvar cancers, a 2000 study published in The Journal of Reproductive Medicine notes that there had been a dramatic increase in the number of young women developing vulvar cancer between 1980 and 2000.
It is important to understand the symptoms of one of the least-discussed cancers among women.
If you notice a bump on your outer vagina while shaving or washing the area, consult your doctor. A cancerous bump is usually dark brown or black, although it could be red, pink or white. It could be anywhere on the outer vagina but is most likely to occur near the clitoris.
The vaginal bump may begin as a mole but gradually change color and/or texture.
Perpetual vaginal itching that does not get better with mild treatment may also be a symptom of vulvar cancer.
6. Loss of Appetite
Loss of appetite is another symptom that could be easily attributed to many relatively harmless causes. However, if it continues for no apparent reason or is accompanied by other symptoms like bloating, it should be diagnosed immediately.
Certain cancers affect the body’s metabolism and cause a loss of appetite. One of these is ovarian cancer.
A 2009 study published in BMJ reports that loss of appetite was the third-highest reported symptom of ovarian cancer after abdominal bloating and post-menopausal bleeding.