Women’s bodies are always changing. Sometimes changes that seem normal can be signs of cancer, though.
The key is to pay attention to your body so you can notice when something’s different, says Robyn Andersen, PhD, of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. “New symptoms indicate something has changed in your body, and you want to know what that means.”
So, what should you watch for?
1. Breast changes
Most breast lumps aren’t cancer, but your doctor should always check them. Let her know about these changes, too:
Skin dimpling or puckering
Nipples that turn inward
Redness or scaling of your nipple or breast skin
To look for the cause of your symptoms, your doctor will do a physical exam and ask you questions about your medical history. You may also have tests like a mammogram or a biopsy, when doctors remove a tiny piece of tissue for testing.
“Women are natural bloaters,” says Marleen Meyers, MD, an oncologist at NYU Langone Medical Center. “It’s OK to wait a week or two to see if it goes away.”
If your symptoms don’t get better with time, or if they happen with weight loss or bleeding, see a doctor. Constant bloating can sometimes mean ovarian cancer. You’ll have a pelvic exam as well as blood tests, and sometimes an ultrasound, to look for the cause of the problem, Andersen says.
3. Between-Period Bleeding
If you’re still getting periods, tell your doctor if you’re spotting between them. Bleeding that’s not a part of your usual monthly cycle can have many causes, but your doctor will want to rule out endometrial cancer (cancer of the lining of your uterus).
Bleeding after menopause is never normal and should be checked right away.
4: Skin Changes
A change in the size, shape, or color of a mole or other spot is a common sign of skin cancer. See your doctor for a thorough exam and perhaps a biopsy. This is one time you don’t want to wait, Meyers says.
5. Blood in Your Pee or Stool
Talk to your doctor if you’re bleeding from a part of your body that normally doesn’t, especially if the bleeding lasts more than a day or two, Meyers says.
Bloody stool is often from hemorrhoids, but it can also be a symptom of colon cancer. Bloody urine is usually the first sign of cancer of the bladder or kidneys, says Herbert Lepor, MD, a urologist at NYU’s Langone.
6. Changes in Lymph Nodes
Lymph nodes are small, bean-shaped glands around the body. Most changes in them come from common infections. But some cancers, including leukemia and lymphoma, can also cause lymph nodes to swell.
It’s a good idea to see your doctor if you have a lump or swelling anywhere in your body that lasts a month or more, Meyers says.
7. Trouble Swallowing
Occasional trouble swallowing is nothing to worry about. But when it happens often, especially with vomiting or weight loss, your doctor may want to check you for throat or stomach cancer.
He’ll look into your symptoms with a throat exam and a barium X-ray. During a barium test, you drink a special liquid that makes your throat stand out on the X-ray.
8. Weight Loss Without Trying
Most women wish extra pounds would magically melt away. But losing 10 pounds or more without a change in your diet or exercise habits could signal a problem.
Most unintended weight loss is not cancer, Meyers says. “It’s often caused by stress or your thyroid, but it can be a sign of pancreatic cancer,” she says. Stomach and lung cancers are also possible.
Your doctor may ask for a lot of tests to look for a problem, including blood tests and imaging tests, like a CT scan.
Too much food, alcohol, or stress (or all three) can cause serious heartburn. Meyers suggests that you change your diet for a week or two to see if your symptoms get better.
If that doesn’t help, talk to your doctor. Heartburn that doesn’t go away or gets worse could mean cancer of the stomach, throat, or ovaries.
10. Mouth Changes
If you smoke, watch for white or bright-red patches inside your mouth or on your lips. Both can signal oral cancer. Ask your doctor or dentist about tests and treatment.
A fever that doesn’t go away and can’t be explained could mean leukemia or another blood cancer. Your doctor should get the details of your medical history and give you a physical exam to check for the cause.
A lot of women are tired because they lead hectic lives. But extreme tiredness that won’t go away isn’t normal.
Talk to your doctor if your fatigue never gets better or if you have other symptoms, like blood in your stool. Your doctor will ask for your complete medical history and give you blood tests.
Most coughs go away on their own in 3 to 4 weeks. Don’t ignore one that lasts longer than that, especially if you smoke or are short of breath. If you cough up blood, go to the doctor. A cough is the most common symptom of lung cancer.
Cancer doesn’t cause most aches. But ongoing pain can signal bone, brain, or other cancers. Ask your doctor about any unexplained aches that last a month or longer.
15. Belly Pain and Depression
It’s rare, but belly pain plus depression can be a sign of pancreatic cancer. Should you worry? Not unless pancreatic cancer runs in your family, Meyers says. “Then you need a prompt [exam].”