When it comes to aches, pains, and other health problems, just because something seems minor doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take it seriously. In fact, research finds that even common ailments can actually be the first warning signs of cancer.
In a survey of 1,729 adults over the age of 50 in the UK published in PLOS ONE, respondents evaluated how serious they perceived a list of 17 ailments—10 of which were actually markers of cancer.
They also indicated whether they’d experienced any of these symptoms recently and, if so, how they actually handled it.
Turns out, many people aren’t paying as much attention to warning signs as they could be, says study author Katriina Whitaker, a senior research fellow at University College London.
“Some people don’t think they [the symptoms] are serious, and cancer does not leap to mind.”
While for the vast majority, “these warning signs will not indicate cancer,” Whitaker says.
Lumps or bumps
It’s best to have any strange lumps checked out by a doctor. In the survey, 7.5 per cent of people reported an unexplained lump. While 67 per cent did contact their doctors, 77 per cent didn’t think it could be a sign of something more serious.
Cough or hoarseness
It’s cold and flu season, so coughing can feel like a given. However, if your cough persists, it could indicate laryngeal, lung, or thyroid cancer or lymphoma. This was the most common symptom among survey participants. “We know coughs and colds are everywhere at the moment, and we’re not suggesting everyone with a cough goes to their doctor,” Whitaker said. “But if you have a symptom that doesn’t go away or is unusual, don’t be afraid to go to your doctor for advice.”
Change in bowel habits
In Whitaker’s study, 18 per cent of people had experienced changes in the timing, amount, or size of their bowel movements. While these disruptions are usually caused by certain foods or medication, if you notice it happens regularly over time, it could also be a sign of colon cancer.
Coughing up blood can signal lung cancer; blood in the stool could be a sign of colon or rectal cancer. Women who experience unexplained vaginal bleeding should be checked for cervical or endometrial cancer. A bloody discharge from the nipple can signal breast cancer, while blood in the urine can mean you have bladder or kidney cancer. Unusual bleeding can occur during any phase of cancer and warrants a visit to your doctor.
A long-lasting sore throat
A sore throat may be just another winter woe, but a persistent one could point to something more severe, such as laryngeal cancer or throat cancer. Of those surveyed, nearly 78 per cent didn’t think throat woes were serious.
Persistent pain is your body’s way of signaling a problem, and that could be anything from nothing…to bone cancer or ovarian cancer. The American Cancer Society says that pain from cancer typically means it has spread—a good reason not to be a stoic and to make an appointment with your physician. One striking finding from Whitaker’s survey: Only about 40 per cent of people in the study were concerned that pain could be a serious issue.
Variation in bladder activity
Because urinary tract infections are common in women, this symptom is often disregarded as just another UTI. But whether you’re male or female, if you notice blood in your urine, experience sudden urgency, or feel pain while going, definitely bring it up with your doctor to rule out cancers of the bladder, kidney, or prostate.