by Karen Oslund

Knowing your body is one of the best ways to spot an early warning sign for cancer, but what does that mean? If you, like me, are middle aged, you might be more accepting of aches and pains than you once were, resigned to the fact that as we age, more things are going to bother us. But paying attention to a new pain, growth, discoloration, hoarseness, swallowing change, or weight loss, could save your life. The two key words here are “pay attention.” Do not ignore what your body might be trying to tell you.

Most people are familiar with the classic warning signs for cancer, but there are other, more unusual signs that can mean something is wrong, and most people would think, “it couldn’t possibly be cancer.”

I asked our patient navigators at the Cancer Resource Centers of Mendocino County, what were some of the first signs their clients had that something was wrong. They gave me many examples, and these were not always classic warning signs for cancer. For example: itchy skin. One of our clients went to many doctors and was treated with creams and medications for scabies and folliculitis, but was ultimately found to have Hodgkin’s disease. Another client we worked with started getting the hiccups—almost never a sign of cancer—but in this case, this was the first sign that something was amiss, and what was amiss was a cancer at the junction of the stomach and the esophagus. Unexplained weight loss or loss of appetite should be checked out, as should a lump, thickening, discoloration of skin, fatigue, and so on. I can’t give anything like a comprehensive list of warning signs here, but you can find out more at the American Cancer Society website, cancer.org. At the bottom of the page, click on “Signs and Symptoms of Cancer.”

Time cures many things: a pulled muscle, for example; but time does not cure cancer. As a person in my fifties, I am willing to give an ache or pain three days to feel better, and it almost always does. But when something unusual is going on, even if it is only mildly irritating, and it does not get better in a few days, it is worth checking out.

More often than you would think, people who know for a long time that something is not right put off going to the doctor and getting it checked out. The reasons for this are complex. Fear can be a powerful force, and some people delay going to the doctor because they fear learning the truth. Since cancer is most easily treated the earlier it is found, delaying diagnosis is never a good idea. Cancer found sooner means less invasive treatment and a better prognosis. Of course, there are other reasons that people don’t go to the doctor—some people lack a medical home, or insurance. Some people avoid medical treatments generally or western medicine in particular. As adults and individuals, it is our choice and our right to decide when we go to the doctor and what happens when we are there, but delaying a cancer diagnosis can literally be fatal.

Listening to our bodies and paying attention when something new is occurring is vital to catching many different health conditions in their early stages, not just cancer. Since the next best thing to not getting cancer is to find it early, know your body and listen to what it is trying to tell you. Knowing our bodies and paying attention are important steps to good health.

The Cancer Resource Centers’ 2017 Cancer Awareness and prevention series is sponsored by CRC in collaboration with the Mendocino County Health and Human Services Agency. The information presented is for educational purposes and is not intended to replace the advice of your health care provider. We encourage you to discuss any questions or concerns you may have with your health care provider. The Cancer Resource Centers of Mendocino County is a grassroots organization serving our communities since 1995 by providing information, advocacy, and support services free of charge.