Long before a doctor ever orders a test, writes a prescription or lifts a scalpel, there is that pivotal symptom hinting that something is not right. It will eventually become what doctors call the "chief complaint," the symptom or constellation of symptoms that guide them down a particular diagnostic path. The process is arduous. Many diseases have similar symptoms while few have symptoms that are unique to one. Doctors must aggregate all the signs and symptoms, see if the person also falls into a high risk group, generate a list of possible causes, prune the list, then validate everything to arrive at a definitive diagnosis.
When it comes to cancer, some diseases are better show-offs than others; they have early, overt symptoms indicating that a particular cancer is likely.
Still others produce such subtle symptoms in the beginning that they can fly under the radar for months, even years, before they are given the attention they deserve. Oftentimes it is too late. This is particularly problematic in women who are accustomed to dismissing vague symptoms because they mimic ones that are familiar and routinely experienced. But, by paying heed to ambiguous symptoms and marrying them to your personal risk for cancer, one can raise the red flag just enough get the diagnostic process going ASAP. And that can go a long way to saving lives because treatment can begin earlier, when it has the best possible chance for a cure.
There are 3 cancers that are particularly tricky to diagnose early - ovarian, pancreatic and esophageal cancer. We hope that someday there will be tests to detect the presence of early chemical or genetic markers that signal a certain cancer is underway.
But for now, it makes sense to pay attention to your body. While early symptoms for these 3 silent killers can be vague, they aren't always absent. And when symptoms are combined with risk factors, a clearer, more pointed picture can emerge.