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.
How 3 Silent Cancers Make Some Noise
While these cancers often go unnoticed until they are more advanced, they aren't always silent. Use this warning-bell checklist (and your intuition) to assess your symptoms and risk factors for 3 of the most silent of all cancers.
The ovaries are located on either side of the uterus in the lower abdomen or pelvic area. Symptoms in this area can be attributed to other conditions and feel like regular aches and pains - the menstrual cycle symptoms and gastrointestinal symptoms most healthy women experience. But listening carefully to women who have been diagnosed with ovarian cancer reveals that symptoms were there all along.
These combined symptoms may paint a different picture particularly when you also consider risk factors for the disease. Risk factors for ovarian cancer relate to the total number of ovulations a woman experiences over a lifetime. If you don't have any of the protective factors that reduce the number of ovulations - pregnancy, breastfeeding and birth control pill use, your risk is automatically increased.
Warning-bell checklist for ovarian cancer
- Feeling full quickly
- Abdominal pain
- Pelvic Pain
- Frequent and urgent urination
The esophagus is the tube that runs from your throat to the stomach. Chewed and swallowed food travels down the tube, eventually passing through a ring of sphincter muscle before entering the acid-rich stomach. Normally this muscle remains contracted and tight to keep acidic stomach contents from moving upwards. But if the sphincter pressure is lax, acid can come into contact with the sensitive lining of the esophagus. While occasional heartburn can be uncomfortable, it is unlikely that it will cause cancer. But up the ante and the constant assault of acid flowing backwards that is typical of untreated gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), can seriously damage the cells of the esophagus. Over time, the erosion takes it toll and the cells of the esophagus become abnormal (Barrett esophagus) putting a person at risk for cancer.
Warning-bell checklist for esophageal cancer
- Difficulty swallowing
- Chest Pain
- Weight Loss
The pancreas is a 6-inch, fish-shaped gland that is wedged between the stomach and the spine. The organ is charged with producing insulin and other hormones (via the endocrine glands), as well as enzyme juices (via the exocrine glands) that help breakdown food during digestion.
The organ distributes its products to the rest of the gastrointestinal tract via ducts. Symptoms of pancreatic cancer depend on which gland or duct is affected. Although cancer can develop in the glandular cells of the pancreas, the ducts tend to be the most susceptible area.
Warning-bell checklist for pancreatic cancer
- Upper abdominal pain that radiates toward your back
- Fat in stool or pale-colored stool
- Dark urine
- Weight loss
Click here to download Dr. Oz's Silent Cancer Checklist and assess your risk.
Click here to take Dr. Oz's Silent Cancer Risk Quiz.