Cancer experts say an unexplained weight loss – of a stone or more – unrelated to a diet or exercise regime can be an early warning sign that something is wrong. According to the American Society of Clinical Oncology, about 40 percent of patients say they had unexplained weight loss when they were first diagnosed.
Helen Coleman, professor of cancer epidemiology at Queen’s University Belfast, explains that weight loss is not indicative of a particular type of cancer, but is the result of the general impact that tumors can have on the body’s metabolism.
“When a tumor grows, it sucks up almost all the calories you eat to feed itself,” she explains. “That’s why it can lead to this unintentional weight loss.”
Sharp says that over-65s are more likely to explain subtle symptoms such as sudden weight loss with the fact that they are older and therefore eating smaller meals, rather than seeing this as a potential problem. “People really need to listen to their bodies,” she says. “Because they often know that something doesn’t feel natural, and it’s important to act on it.”
2. An unusual mole
The first sign of melanoma skin cancer can be a mole that changes size, shape or color. While normal moles tend to be oval, a uniform color and no more than 6 mm in diameter, melanoma moles are subtly different.
To identify them, the Mayo Clinic recommends thinking of the letters ABCDE. “A” refers to an asymmetrical shape, “B” means an irregular border, “C” indicates changes in color or an uneven color distribution, “D” is diameter (because malignant moles tend to be larger than 6 mm), and ” E” is for evolving, as changes in size, color or shape can indicate a problem, such as new itching or bleeding.
“Melanoma skin cancer is a strong example of this point about going to the doctor early,” says Dorothy Bennett, professor of cell biology at the University of London. “The key sign in adults is a new or old mole that is growing, and also larger than your other moles, itching, blood, irregular or fuzzy borders, and slightly different colored areas. The more signs, the more likely it is a melanoma is.”
Bennett says it’s especially important to detect melanomas early because 99 percent of people will survive five years if the cancer is detected early. In comparison, if the cancer has spread to other parts of the body by the time it is diagnosed, only 53 percent of people will survive a year.
3. Difficulty swallowing
Difficulty swallowing, especially when eating meat, bread or raw vegetables, can be an early warning sign of various head and neck cancers, such as esophageal cancer, especially in combination with symptoms such as frequent and intense bursts of heartburn, coughing and a feeling from pressure in the chest. This can be due to the presence of a tumor that blocks the passage of food through the esophagus and into the stomach.
“Digestive cancers tend to have digestive-related symptoms like persistent heartburn that can affect people more at night,” says Coleman. “We often hear stories from patients who have the feeling that food is just above their stomach.”
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