What are some of the early tell-tale signs that you may have cancer? It's far harder to detect than you might think, and some of the usual suspects - such as rectal bleeding - usually aren't signs of a cancer at all, as a new study reveals.
Lumps in the breast: This is probably the most publicised early sign for women who examine their breasts. However, on average, 85 per cent of lumps are benign, and this figure increases even further among women under the age of 55 years, whose breast tissue is changing.
Blood in your urine (hematuria): This can be a sign of urological cancer - but in only a fraction of sufferers. Just 2 per cent of women and 5 per cent of men who regularly have blood in their urine have cancer, although this figure rises to 11 per cent in men over the age of 70.
Coughing up blood (hemoptysis): It's a rare problem in the first place, and something that should get the alarm bells going only if it regularly happens. In these cases, anything from 6 to 21 per cent of sufferers have lung cancer. Again, the high end of this scale is dominated by people over the age of 55.
Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia): This can be an indication of a range of problems, usually minor, but it could also be an early sign of a nervous disorder or Parkinson's. It might also suggest a cancer of the neck or throat, but only in a very small number of cases. Up to 5 per cent of males who have problems swallowing may have a cancer, but the risk drops to just 0.2 per cent of people under the age of 45.
Rectal bleeding: People reckon this is one of the most common alarm signals of a cancer - and they would be wrong. Of all the likely symptoms, this has the lowest association with cancer, with an overall risk - across all ages - of just 2 per cent.
Although we live in a cancer-obsessed society, it's worth bearing in mind that the average doctor with 1500 patients on his list will see just one case of lung cancer and one of colorectal cancer each year, one case of renal or bladder cancer every two years, and one case of esophageal cancer every five years.
(Source: British Medical Journal, 2007; 334: 1013-4).
E-news broadcast 7 June 2007 No.366