Cancer: Four ‘alarm’ symptoms that are predictive of a cancer diagnosis three years later

Cancer symptoms: Top 14 early signs to look out for

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It is perfectly normal to feel out of sorts from time to time, but unexplained changes that persist can signal something more serious. The trap many cancer patients fall into is that they initially mistake the former for the latter. The result is crucial delays in getting checked out.

A large BMJ study sought to identify the “alarm” symptoms that are indicative of an eventual cancer diagnosis.

The large population based study was based on data from the UK General Practice Research Database – a computerised database of anonymised data from patient records.

Four “alarm” symptoms were studied for diagnoses of neoplasms of the urinary tract, respiratory tract, oesophagus, or colon and rectum during three years after symptom onset.

Neoplasms are an abnormal mass of tissue that forms when cells grow and divide more than they should or do not die when they should. Neoplasms may be benign (not cancer) or in this case malignant (cancer).

The symptoms researchers focussed on were:

  • Blood in urine (haematuria)
  • Coughing of blood (haemoptysis)
  • Swallowing difficulties (dysphagia)
  • Rectal bleeding.

What did the researchers find out?

Over the course of three years, 11,108 first occurrences of haematuria were associated with 472 new diagnoses of urinary tract cancers in men and 162 in women.

After 4,812 new episodes of haemoptysis, 220 diagnoses of respiratory tract cancer were made in men and 81 in women.

After 5,999 new diagnoses of dysphagia, 150 diagnoses of oesophageal cancer were made in men and 81 in women

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After 15,289 episodes of rectal bleeding, 184 diagnoses of colorectal cancer were made in men and 154 in women.

Predictive values increased with age and were “strikingly high”, for example, in men with haemoptysis aged 75-84 and in men with dysphagia aged 65-74, the researchers wrote.

They concluded: “New onset of alarm symptoms is associated with an increased likelihood of a diagnosis of cancer, especially in men and in people aged over 65.

“These data provide support for the early evaluation of alarm symptoms in an attempt to identify underlying cancers at an earlier and more amenable stage.”

How to respond to symptoms

It’s important to be aware of any new or worrying symptoms.

“Although it’s unlikely to be cancer, it’s important to speak to a GP so they can investigate. Finding cancer early means it’s easier to treat,” notes the NHS.

“If your GP suspects cancer, they’ll refer you to a specialist – usually within two weeks.”

It is also important to know your body.

Macmillan Cancer Support explains: “If you know your body and what is normal for you, it will help you to be aware of any changes. People sometimes think a change in their body is not worth bothering their GP about.

“Or they may feel embarrassed talking about it.”

But, says the charity, if you notice a change in how you feel or how your body works, it is better to be safe and get it checked.

“Always see your GP if you have symptoms that are ongoing, unexplained or unusual for you.”

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