“Most of the time, these problems aren’t serious,” said James Hamrick, chief medical officer at Flatiron Health, “but it’s good to get them checked out.”
You’re less likely to be shocked if you get your cancer screenings done on time—a colonoscopy at age 50, every 10 years thereafter, a dermatologist exam, and yearly mammograms for women. “Cancers are often missed or advanced when patients are not screened,” says medical oncologist Sandy Kotiah, MD, director of the Neuroendocrine Tumor Center at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. His advice: “Don’t ignore things that don’t die.”
Here are some good signs to see a doctor.
- Accidental weight loss
If you exercise and eat less to lose a few pounds, you will see results. “But if your clothes don’t fit and you’re not restricting your food intake, that’s a red flag,” says Dr. Hamrick.
Cancer can make you lose weight unintentionally, especially if it’s cancer that has spread from one organ to another. If you’ve lost more than five to 10 percent of your body weight without trying, talk to your doctor.
- Unexplained bleeding
Many people occasionally see blood on the toilet paper, which is often the result of an irritated hemorrhoid. However, if there is a lot of blood or the stool is dark and thick (a sign of old blood), make an appointment to get it checked out.
“Dark, tarry stools indicate bleeding from the stomach or esophagus,” Dr. Hamrick says. “Continuous bright red indicates a problem in the lower part of the colon or rectum.” Vaginal bleeding after menopause should be reported to your doctor.
- Massive bloating
Many people experience bloating or unpleasant fullness due to hormonal changes or common GI issues such as irritable bowel syndrome.
“However, if women experience an increase in the size of their abdomen and a constant feeling of bloating, we may suspect ovarian cancer,” Dr. Hamrick said. This is especially true for postmenopausal women.
- Breast lumps
Despite widespread campaigns to promote breast self-examination, some lumps go unnoticed. “Many women notice a lump in their upper armpit and don’t think anything of it,” says Dr. Kotia. Don’t waste your time going to your doctor and getting a mammogram. The good news: As women age, breast tissue becomes fattier and less dense, making it easier to detect abnormal growth on X-rays. “You get more bang for your buck from your mammogram,” says Dr. Hamrick.