Cancer is caused by uncontrolled growth of cells in our body. It can be due to changes in lifestyle, infections or hereditary factors. If detected in the early stage many of them can be cured by surgery, radiotherapy or chemotherapy.
How to detect cancer early
Cancer results from the uncontrolled growth of cells in our body. It can affect almost any part of the human body. In India, the total cancer cases, which were 979,786 in 2010, are likely to go up to 1,148,757 by 2020. There are more than 100 types of cancer. the growth often invades surrounding tissues and can spread to other parts of the body as well (metastasis). Common causes include changes in the lifestyle, infections and hereditary factors. If detected in the early state, many of them can be cured by surgery, radiotherapy or chemotherapy. Detection can be made in the early stage if you are aware of the common signs and symptoms and by simple tests called screening tests which helps detection even before the symptoms develop.
What are the warning signs?
Any unusual bleeding or discharge from any part of the body – If you see blood in the urine it may be the beginning of cancer of the bladder or kidney. So better go for a urine test and X-rays and scans if needed. Blood in the stool can occur with piles, fissure (cracks) or cancer of the large intestine. Many times, colon cancer is misdiagnosed and treated as piles. This leads to a lot of delay in detecting the real cause and by the time the right diagnosis is made, it would be too late. So even if it is piles, it requires a detailed check to rule out other causes before you start any form of treatment. These tests are simple like digital rectal examination, proctoscopy (putting a scope into the rectum and examining) or colonoscopy or X-ray test.
Any form of discharge especially if it is bloodstained from any part of the body should be taken seriously. Two most common cancers associated with blood strained discharges are breast cancer (blood stained discharge from the nipple) and cancer of the vagina or cervix and uterus. Breast cancer may be associated with swelling in the breast, change in its shape, retraction of the nipples or swelling in the armpit. If it occurs, then better to consult and undergo the necessary tests like the mammogram, ultrasound scan or MRI scan of the breast. For suspected uterine cancer, pathologic examination of the fluid and CT scan or MRI scan will be useful.
An ulcer that does not heal
It is common that we all get ulcers in the mouth. The commonest cause is an aphthous ulcer. There is no particular cause or treatment and it usually heals in a week. However, if any ulcer in any part of the body doesn’t heal in 2-3 weeks or is increasing, and is associated with pain and bleeding, further tests are needed to rule out the possibility of cancer.
Alteration of bowel habits
Constipation is common especially among the elderly. If it is getting worse even with treatment or it is followed by loose stools (especially a few days constipation and few days loose stools) or associated with changes in the colour, consistency, size, or shape of stools, then you have to get investigated to rule out the possibility of cancer of the large intestine.
A lump or swelling in the breast or any other part of the body
Swellings arising from the fat (lipoma) is very commonly seen. These are usually soft and don’t grow over time. Even if it grows, it is very slow. However, cancerous swellings are usually hard, grow fast and may be associated with pain or change in the skin color or ulceration. If so, you have to get investigated.
Occurrence of a chronic cough or change in voice
Cough is commonly associated with respiratory infection of chronic smoking. It usually subsides with treatment. If it is lasting despite usual treatment or lasting more than 3-4 weeks or sputum is stained with blood, then you have to get tested to rule out the possibility of cancer of the voice box (larynx) or lungs.
We all have birthmarks or moles on our body
It is of different types. But if a definitely change occurs in the moles like change in its shape, enlarging fast, having itching or it ulcerates, then it is becoming cancerous. It is called melanoma.
Difficulty in swallowing
It can be due to various causes. Most commonly it is seen with growth in the food pipe (esophagus) or neurological conditions. Initially, the difficulty may be in swallowing hard food. They will be able to take it with sips of water. But when the block gets worse, there will be difficulty even in drinking water. An endoscopy test will help in diagnosing the condition.
Dyspepsia, early satiety or feeling of fullness of abdomen even with a small amount of food
Usually, people consider it as gas and take antacids or other medicines for long time as it will give temporary relief. Moreover, these medicines are available over the counter and they never bother to consult a doctor unless they are really troubled. At times this may be an early symptom of stomach cancer or any other cancer arising from the abdominal contents. So if the symptoms are lasting long or not easily relieved with simple medications, then you should undergo endoscopy and other tests to make sure everything is alright.
Self-examination and breast examination by a healthcare worker or mammography are the methods used. Mammography is a simple X-ray test and is not associated with much discomfort or any side effects. The radiation dose that you get from a mammography is also small. Screening mammography is found to be more useful for women above 50 years of age.
Cervical cancer screening
There are various methods which are simple and can be used even in a peripheral healthcare facility like visual inspection with acetic acid. Another test is a cytologic test called pap smear. Here, cells are scraped from the cervix and examined under the microscope. The Pap test is recommended for all women between the age of 21 and 65 years.
Colon cancer (cancer of large intestine)
If you are above the age of 50 years, then you should get screened for colon cancer. The common tests used are the fecal occult blood test (colon cancer is associated with a small amount of blood in the stools), sigmoidoscopy and colonoscopy.
A simple examination of your mouth with a mirror is found to pick up oral cancer cases early.
Common symptoms is difficulty in passing urine. Most commonly it is due to age-associated enlargement of the prostate. Prostate cancer antigen (PSA) is the test used to screen for prostate cancer. It is usually recommended for people above the age of 50 years.