While it’s important to stay watchful of changes in our bodies at all times, it’s particularly important right now during the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic. Routine medical appointments are being postponed, including annual exams, and then it may become difficult even to get an appointment once your doctor’s office reopens to regular exams.
However, while we are checking ourselves for COVID-19 symptoms seemingly ten times a day, we should also pay attention to other warning signs. There are some general cancer signs and symptoms, and some at-home cancer screenings you can practice at home. Make sure to reach out to your doctor to start a discussion if you notice anything different from the ordinary.
The first step is to know your body. Whether it is age spots on your skin or the addition of some aches and pains we feel as we age, some changes are a normal part of aging. However, take note if something feels more significant than usual.
By having a general understanding of your body’s “normal,” it becomes easier for you to take notice of any cancer warning signs that your body may be experiencing.
How You Can Self-Monitor for Cancer Symptoms
Our cancer specialists have put together some general at-home cancer screenings and some tips for general health monitoring you can do on your own.
Watch for General Signs Something is Wrong
There are some general warning signs to watch for that will indicate if something is wrong with your body. These signs aren’t specific to cancer (and some can also be caused by the extra stress we are all under right now). In general, though, everyone should watch for:
- Fluctuation in weight. Stress can lead to either stress eating or lack of appetite, so take this into account. However, if you aren’t changing your exercise or eating habits too much, take note if you gain or lose more than 5 pounds in a matter of a few weeks.
- Indigestion. Take note of relentless heartburn or indigestion that does not respond to standard medications or sticks around for longer than three weeks.
- Unexplained severe fatigue. Also, a symptom of Coronavirus, but if you’ve tested negative and still feel very tired without a good reason, take note.
A fever, persistent cough, trouble breathing, and muscle pain can be signs of something gone wrong. In most cases, it is not likely to be cancer and instead is a symptom of a viral or bacterial infection. If you show these symptoms, have tested negative for COVID-19, and continue to have problems with breathing or coughing, you should reach out to your primary care doctor (PCP) to discuss other possible causes and testing.
Changes to your Skin
Skin cancer is very common, especially among pale-skinned individuals, but dark-skinned people aren’t immune to melanoma or skin cancer.
You may not be getting into the doctor for regular, in-person skin checks, so take note of:
- Any changes to moles, freckles, birthmarks, etc
- Changes in skin color or texture
- Unexplained bright red spots or bruising
- Any dome-shaped bumps that are pink or purple in color and growing.
- Moles that bleed without irritation
Know Your Breasts and Note Changes
Whether you are a man or a woman, you should know your healthy breasts, and perform regular self-breast exams. If you develop any new lumps, inflammation, nipple changes or unusual discharge (not breast milk), you should contact your doctor. Also, note any lumps you might feel in the breast, underarm, or collarbone area and talk to your doctor immediately.
Other signs of breast cancer to watch out for include:
- Swelling of all or part of the breast (even if no lump is present)
- Skin irritation or itchiness
- Orange peel-like dimpling of the skin
- Breast pain
- Change in breast size or shape
- Nipple pain or a newly inverted nipple
Watch for Unusual Bleeding
For women, abnormal bleeding includes bleeding outside of your normal menstruation cycle or spotting after menopause. Talk to your PCP or gynecologist, if you experience any unusual vaginal bleeding.
Both men and women should also contact your doctor if you start to notice any of the following:
- Vomiting, spitting or coughing up blood
- Bleeding from a mole or wart, you did not scratch
- Blood in your urine
- Blood in your semen
- Frequent nosebleeds
Notice Changes to Your Testicles
Men should also be sure to routinely check their testicles and scrotum for lumps, firmness, or enlargement. An infection can also cause these symptoms; therefore, it is best to talk with your doctor if you notice anything different from the ordinary. To learn more about testicular self-exams, visit the Testicular Cancer Society website.
Unexplained, Unexpected Pain
Pain in any part of your body that doesn’t appear to have a reason is always a warning sign. If you have pain in your joints, bones, or the back of the lower legs in the absence of injury, this can be a warning sign of cancer.
Be aware of unusual abdominal pain or bloating painful intercourse, or of any pain when coughing– that isn’t a result of having had a prolonged bad cough. Pain can occur anywhere. For example, pain in your lower back or abdomen that you can’t explain is another issue if you are not constipated.
Changes in the Mouth or Throat
The other kind of routine appointment that may not be on your regular schedule is your visit to the dentist. Dentists are the first line of defense in screening for oral and throat cancer. Without that regular check, you should watch for:
- Pain or numbness in your mouth.
- Mouth ulcers that don’t go away, primarily if not associated with biting your cheek.
- Difficulty chewing, swallowing or speaking.
- Swelling on one side of your neck.
- Changes to your bite (if your teeth don’t seem to be coming together right).
- Excess saliva.
- Change in the pitch of your voice that lasts for more than two weeks.
- Pain when swallowing.
- Hoarseness, lasting longer than two weeks.
Changes in Bathroom Habits
Pay attention to your bowel movements and urination frequency so that you know what is normal for you. Changes in your bathroom habits can be an early indication of a few health conditions, including urinary tract, colorectal or prostate cancers.
While mild diarrhea can sometimes be an early sign of COVID-19, persistent diarrhea or loose stools can indicate a problem. Occasional diarrhea or loose stools aren’t too concerning if you’ve been under stress; however, if it’s ongoing for longer than a few days, talk with your doctor. It’s most likely not cancer, but you can become dehydrated if it goes for too long.
Additionally, for many patients, at-home colorectal screening can be an option if you can’t get in for a regular colonoscopy (recommended for everyone age 50+).
Changes in bathroom habits to watch for include:
- Repeated and frequent diarrhea or constipation for no apparent reason. (This can also be a sign of IBS or another digestive problem).
- Constant urges to urinate or have a bowel movement, especially if nothing comes of them
- Not feeling empty after going to the bathroom.
- Pain or difficulty going to the bathroom.
- Change in the usual size, shape, and color of your stool (again, know your body. Some foods may induce stool changes).
- Tea-colored urine.
- Pale or unusual smelling stool.
You should be checking your temperature regularly right now, and it’s important to be aware that a persistent low-grade fever of about 100, especially if you don’t have any other symptoms, signifies an infection.
It may be COVID-19, and you may want to get tested. If the test is negative and your fever continues, you should reach out to your PCP.
If you aren’t familiar with your normal baseline temperature, now is the time to take your temperature morning and night for a few days, so you know if you usually run hot or cold.
It’s Not Necessarily Cancer
Remember, many of these changes have explanations that don’t mean cancer. But at the same time, you don’t want to ignore something and think it’s just nothing. It’s best to have it checked out.
Right now, we each have to do our part to monitor our health individually; however, you mustn’t send yourself into a panic. Just be aware of what’s normal and take note if you see changes that don’t go back to normal after a week or two.
If you can’t see your doctor in person, many doctors can now conduct some appointments via teleconference or phone call. As always, make sure that you know what cancer screenings you should be getting regularly, or if there are specific things you should be doing at home to better monitor your health. Even if you’re a cancer survivor, be sure you get screened for the other types of cancer at regular intervals.