It is essential to understand that
cancer is not one disease, but hundreds of different diseases which
share in common only one feature, unregulated cell growth. Various
cancers are different in terms of cause, diagnosis and treatment. Most
experts feel it is highly unlikely that there will ever be a single
cure for all cancers; rather, the war against cancer will likely be
fought continually on many fronts.
Most of us cannot easily remember the seven warning signs of cancer.
However, we can and should remember that any persistent (more than two
weeks) change in body appearance or function is cause for concern,
concern which should prompt an immediate visit to a doctor. Usually,
it is not cancer, but various studies indicate that most of us wait a
foolishly long period of months before checking on changes that are
obviously abnormal. Sometimes part of the rationalization for this is
the idea that we can wait for our routine yearly physical, which then
keeps getting postponed. An immediate investigation of symptoms has a
much greater pay-off than routine checkups. The latter should never be
considered a substitute for the former.
The following are some common and important warning signs:
(a) Skin changes: Any significant new growth or change in a
previous skin growth or marking should be investigated, by a
dermatologist (skin specialist), if a satisfactory explanation is not
given by your usual source of medical care. And do not forget the
"skin" inside your mouth.
(b) Change in bowel habits: This is a tough one because most of
us experience occasional upsets in bowel habits, the vast majority of
which are not due to cancer. However, any persistent change, more than
two weeks, should be reported to your physician. It is your doctor's
responsibility, not yours, to decide whether it is worth further
(c) Abnormal bleeding or discharge: Any bloody material that is
coughed up or vomitted is clearly abnormal, as is any vaginal bleeding
in a post-menopausal woman or any discharge (bloody or otherwise) from
the breast. More confusing is minimal bleeding from the rectum (often
due to hemorrhoids) or in the urine (often due to infection). Also
confusing is unusual bleeding in a woman still menstruating. Again,
the only safe advice is to report such changes to your physician and
make the matter his responsibility.
(d) Lumps and bumps: Most important is a lump found in the
breast. Other lumps, however, should not be ignored even though most
turn out not to be cancer, including 80% of all breast lumps.
(e) Coughing and hoarseness: These two common complaints
usually are secondary to inflammation of the vocal cords. However,
hoarseness of more than two weeks duration may be a very useful
warning sign of cancer in the voice box. Unfortunately, coughing is
not a useful early warning symptom of lung cancer.
Again, the above list is only partial. The bottom-line rule is always
this: any persistent change in appearance or function of any parts of
your body should be reported to your physician.