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10 shocking symptoms that could be cancer

While there are a few tell-tale signs of cancer our bodies present inside and out, there are some you’ve probably never heard of. 

On the big screen, we’re used to seeing movie characters stumble upon an unfortunate health discovery in one of two dramatic ways. Either a lump is mysteriously felt in the middle of a shower, or their weekly grocery shop is interrupted by a sudden fainting spell. 

And while these two examples reflect a series of events many cancer patients endure, not every serious illness is discovered like that. Cancer, an umbrella diagnosis comprised of thousands of combinations of stages and types, can often be found in a patient who may not necessarily be displaying ‘tell-tale’ symptoms

Without evoking paranoia with every cough, rash or ache your body may develop, it’s important to constantly check in with how your body looks, feels and functions. As some symptoms of serious illness are hard to detect or distinguish on our own, keeping up to date with your regular GP visits and screening requirements throughout the years is also a must.

From unsightly rashes to seemingly normal aches and pains, here are ten physical indications of cancer that might surprise you.

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#1. Neverending itching

Lymphomas, such as Hodgkin’s and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, are types of cancer that affect the lymph system. How does this cause itchiness? Well, according to experts, the body releases chemicals known as cytokines as a response to lymphoma, which can irritate the skin and cause incessant itching. Dr Craig Moskowitz, physician in chief for oncology at Miami’s Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, urges people not to overlook a severe and persistent itch, “If nobody can really figure out why you’re having generalised itching, you really need to pursue a possible diagnosis of an underlying malignancy,” he tells Health. 

#2. Pearly pimples

Being the most common type of cancer, it’s no surprise that skin cancer can manifest in several ways. According to dermatologist Dr Marc Glashofer, one of the main types– basal cell carcinoma– can often appear as a pearly, translucent pimple. They also have been diagnosed after examining sores, scaly patches, and cyst-like bumps. According to the expert, skin concerns persisting beyond six to eight weeks should be examined by a specialist. 

#3. A droopy eyelid

Strangely enough, a droopy upper eyelid can indicate the presence of a Pancoast tumour, a type of lung cancer that spreads from the upper part of the lung. Unlike most cancers of this region, developing a bad cough is not a common symptom associated with Pancoast tumour, instead manifesting as severe shoulder pain, a droopy eyelid and the loss of sweating on one side of the face. 

#4. Eczema-like rashes

If a red, scaly patch of skin develops on a patch of skin that is often exposed to the sun and persists beyond eight weeks, don’t jump to the concussion that it’s eczema, Dr Glashofer says. Rashes of this type can sometimes be a symptom of squamous cell carcinoma. Fortunately, when caught early enough, Squamous cell carcinoma is almost always curable.

#5. An earache

An earache is usually a sign of infection, but what about one that persists despite any rhyme or reason? It may be a symptom known as ‘referred otalgia’, and can be triggered by oral cancer. As Dr Bruce Davidson from Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington explains, “An early cancer on the back of the tongue or tonsil might have pretty subtle symptoms.”

#6. Irregular vaginal bleeding

Irregular vaginal bleeding is almost always an indication of some kind of hormonal imbalance or ongoing physical issue. While it often can be caused by uterine fibroids or polyps, some cases of unusual bleeding can be linked to endometrial cancer, a common type of uterine cancer. Dr Stephen Rubin, MD, chief of gynaecologic oncology at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, urges anyone who experiences abnormal bleeding (especially after menopause) to seek medical evaluation. 

#7. That lump-in-the-throat feeling

Noticing that feeling of having a lump in your throat, but the finale of Marlie and Me isn’t playing in the background? Often accompanied by acid reflux, this feeling can be an indication of a present tumour. Dr Davidson says he’s seen a rise of base-of-tongue and tonsil tumours due to human papillomavirus infections, often acquired through oral sex. 

#8. Pain after drinking alcohol

While most people are familiar with a pounding headache the morning after heavy drinking, experiencing pain from just a few sips of alcohol can sometimes indicate the presence of Hodgkin lymphoma. Initially impacting the body’s white blood cells, Hodgkin lymphoma can start almost anywhere in the body, often appearing in the lymph nodes in the chest, neck, or under the arms. “Usually, these patients can have some swollen lymph nodes in the neck or the chest,“ Dr Moskowitz says, explaining alcohol consumption appears to induce pain in these lumps.

#9. Losing your voice

Unless you’ve spent the weekend at a music festival, or are recovering from a terrible cold, persistent hoarseness of the voice could be an indication of laryngeal cancer. Attacking to voice box, this cancer can also cause throat and ear pain, or a lump in the throat. 

#10. Nipple discharge

While breastfeeding women are more than familiar with irritating and often uncontrollable milk discharge, experiencing the phenomenon outside of pregnancy (i.e. not breastmilk) can indicate a grave issue. Discharge that is sudden, yellowish or bloody, or occurs in one breast only can sometimes be a symptom of Paget’s disease, a rare form of breast cancer. 

As always, if any symptom or physical ailment is concerning you, seek medical advice from your doctor– not Google.

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