1: Unexplained weight loss
Many women would be delighted to lose weight without trying. However, unexplained weight loss – say 10 pounds in a month without an increase in exercise or a decrease in food intake – should be checked, Dr Mishori says.
It could, of course, turn out to be another condition, such as an overactive thyroid.
Expect your doctor to run tests to check the thyroid and perhaps order a CT scan of different organs. The doctor needs to “rule out the possibilities, one by one,” Dr Mishori says.
Bloating is so common that many women just live with it. However, persistent bloating could point to ovarian cancer. Other symptoms of ovarian cancer include abdominal pain or pelvic pain, feeling full quickly – even when you haven’t eaten much – and urinary problems such as having an urgent need to go to the toilet.
If the bloating occurs almost every day and persists for more than a few weeks, you should consult your doctor. Expect your doctor to take a careful history and order a scan and blood tests, among others.
3: Breast changes
Most women know their breasts well, even if they don’t do regular self-examinations, and know to be on the lookout for lumps. However, that’s not the only breast symptom that could point to cancer. Redness and thickening of the skin on the breast, which could indicate a very rare but aggressive form of breast cancer, inflammatory breast cancer, also needs to be examined, Dr Linden says. “If you have a rash that persists over weeks, you have to get it evaluated,” she says.
Likewise, if the look of a nipple changes, or if you notice discharge (and aren’t breastfeeding), seek medical advice. “If it’s outgoing normally and turns in,” she says, that’s not a good sign. “If your nipples are inverted chronically, no big deal.” It’s the change in appearance that could be a worrying symptom.
If you have breast changes, expect your doctor to take a careful history, examine the breast and possibly refer you to a specialist breast clinic where you’ll have tests that may include a mammogram, ultrasound, MRI and perhaps a biopsy.
4: Between-period bleeding or other unusual bleeding
”Premenopausal women tend to ignore between-period bleeding,” Dr Daly says. They also tend to ignore bleeding from the GI (gastrointestinal) tract, mistakenly thinking it is from their period. However, bleeding between periods, especially if you are typically regular, needs checking, she says. So does bleeding after menopause, as it could be a symptom of endometrial cancer. Rectal bleeding could be a symptom of bowel cancer. Cancer Research UK also recommends seeing a doctor if there is bleeding between periods or after menopause, as well as if there is bleeding after sex.
Think about what’s normal for you, says Debbie Saslow, a breast and gynaecology expert. “If a woman never spots [between periods] and she spots, it’s abnormal for her. For someone else, it might not be.”
“Endometrial cancer is a common gynaecologic cancer,” Debbie Saslow says. “At least three-quarters who get it have some abnormal bleeding as an early sign.”
Your doctor will take a careful history and, depending on the timing of the bleeding and other symptoms, probably order an ultrasound or refer you to a specialist gynaecologist for further investigation.
5: Skin changes
Most of us know to look for any changes in moles – a well-known sign of skin cancer. However, we should also watch for changes in skin pigmentation, Dr Daly says.
If you suddenly develop bleeding on your skin or excessive scaling, that should be checked, too, she says. It’s difficult to say how long is too long to observe skin changes before you go to the doctor, but most experts say not longer than a few weeks.