“Most of the time, these problems aren’t serious,” says James Hamrick, chief medical officer at Flatiron Health, “but it’s a good idea to get them checked out.”
You’re less likely to be shocked if you start getting regular cancer screenings in your 50s, including a colonoscopy every 10 years, a dermatologist exam, and yearly mammograms for women. “Cancers are missed or advanced when patients are not screened,” says medical oncologist Sandy Kotiah, director of the Neuroendocrine Tumor Center at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. His advice: “Don’t ignore what doesn’t die.”
Here are some good signs to see a doctor.
Accidental weight loss
If you exercise and eat less to lose a few pounds, you will see results. “But if your clothes don’t fit and you’re not restricting your food, that’s a red flag,” says Dr. Hamrick.
Cancer can cause you to lose weight unintentionally, especially if the cancer has spread from one organ to another. If you’ve lost more than five to 10 percent of your body weight without trying, talk to your doctor.
Many people occasionally see blood on the toilet paper, which is often the result of an irritated hemorrhoid. But if there is a lot of blood, the stool is dark and thick (symptoms of old blood), make an appointment and get tested.
“Dark, thick stools may indicate bleeding from the stomach or esophagus,” says Dr. Hamrick. “Persistent bright red indicates a problem in the colon or lower rectum.” Vaginal bleeding after menopause should be reported to your doctor.
Despite widespread campaigns to promote breast self-examination, some lumps go unnoticed. “Many women notice a lump in the upper armpit and think nothing of it,” says Dr. Kotia. Don’t waste your time going to your doctor and getting a mammogram. The good news: As women age, breast tissue becomes fatter and less dense, making it easier to detect abnormal growth on X-rays. “You’ll get more out of your mammogram,” says Dr. Hamrick.
A cough that lasts for six weeks is common during the flu season. “The airways are irritated and take time to heal,” says Dr. Hamrick. If your chest sounds are still there after a month and a half, it’s a good idea to get a chest X-ray to rule out lung cancer.
Change the mole
You may have had a mole for decades, but if it suddenly enlarges and bleeds when it’s not damaged, see your doctor. “Color changes such as brown, irregular borders or rapid growth are cause for concern,” says Dr. Hamrick. “You should see a dermatologist.”
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