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Cancer symptoms men should not ignore

It’s a stereotype that all too often rings true: Men frequently ignore signs when something is wrong with their health. Many refuse to see their doctor for health issues, let alone talk about them with their spouse or closest friends.

But knowing the common signs of cancer—and more importantly, seeing a doctor about them—can increase a man’s chances of detecting the disease early on. More treatment options are available when cancer is diagnosed in an early stage and people have a greater chance of winning the fight.

Cancer does not always have a recognizable symptom. However, there are some physical signs that shouldn’t be ignored. Dr. David Boyd, intake physician and Director of Primary Care Medicine at our suburban Phoenix hospital, says symptoms that warrant a visit to the doctor sooner rather than later include: rapid weight loss, blood in the urine or stool, and/or lumps or bumps that are increasing in size or just not going away.

"Unexplained bleeding should never be ignored,” says Dr. Sean Cavanaugh, a radiation oncologist at our hospital near Atlanta. “When there is blood in a man’s urine, it may be an early sign of bladder cancer or a more advanced prostate cancer. Blood in the stool can be related to colorectal or anal cancer.”

Dr. Cavanaugh says another red-flag symptom of cancer men should not disregard is unexplained weight loss. In general, if a man loses 10 pounds or more in a month without trying, it calls for a visit to the doctor’s office.

“Men also need to examine themselves occasionally to detect any changes in their penis or testicles,” advises Dr. Cavanaugh. “Interestingly, in my experience men who ignore other serious symptoms for months will seek immediate medical attention for any concerns about their testicles. That’s a good start, but men need to seek medical attention for a wider array of concerns.”

Symptoms that seem vague, but worrisome nonetheless

Fatigue and a diminished energy are something many of us experience in our busy lives. However, it can signal a deeper health problem, says Dr. Boyd. Feeling tired is often dismissed or chalked up to stress, but it’s also one of the most common symptoms of cancer.

Dr. Evan Pisick, a medical oncologist at our north suburban Chicago hospital, says some cancer symptoms such as pain can be subtle and develop over time. He notes, “If a man has prostate cancer and the disease is more progressed, he may have bone pain that does not improve with rest, heat, ice, massage, stretching or other traditional remedies and therapies.”

Other not-so-obvious symptoms of cancer include: persistent coughing, shortness of breath, unexplained fever, persistent indigestion and trouble swallowing. While you don’t want to be paranoid about every ache and pain, it’s important to pay attention to your body and see your doctor about symptoms that progress for two weeks or longer.

Should you assume symptoms mean you have cancer?

It’s important not to panic and assume the worst. The best action you can take for you and your loved ones is to see a doctor as soon as you realize you’re experiencing cancer symptoms.

In some cases, symptoms of various cancers can be identical to symptoms of other diseases or conditions. For example, Dr. Pisick cautions prostate cancer symptoms are similar to symptoms of benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), or an enlarged prostate. BPH is a non-cancerous condition that most men get as they age.

Prostate cancer and BPH have these symptoms in common: weak urine stream, waking frequently at night to urinate, frequent urination, urgency, trouble starting or stopping a urine stream and blood in urine.

“Men need to follow up with their primary care physician when these symptoms occur and undergo tests to determine a diagnosis,” says Dr. Pisick.

Men who experience any symptom suspected to be caused by cancer should be examined by a doctor. A series of diagnostic tests, including blood tests and imaging tests such as a CT scan or X-ray, will be performed in order for the doctor to make a diagnosis of cancer.

See your doctor for physicals, cancer screening and when you experience cancer symptoms

“An annual physical exam is a good place to start,” says Dr. Boyd. “Even race cars need an inspection now and then.”

Learn about screening for prostate, colorectal, skin, lung and oral cancer and be sure to follow the recommended guidelines for screening.

If you do experience a symptom of cancer, don’t dillydally—see your doctor. Dr. Boyd urges, “We know our bodies better than anyone. If something seems suspicious, see a doctor for it.”

Women also need to encourage their husbands, fathers, brothers and sons to talk about symptoms they experience and insist that they see a physician for regular checkups, preventative screening and symptoms.

Symptoms of cancer in men

The three most common cancers among men are prostate, lung and colorectal cancer. Symptoms to be on the lookout for include:

  • Prostate cancer: Pain and difficulty urinating, frequent need to urinate, weak or slow urinary stream, blood in urine, blood in semen, pain in the pelvic area, trouble getting an erection and weakness in the legs and feet.
  • Lung cancer: A prolonged cough lasting more than three weeks, wheezing, shortness of breath, coughing up blood, recurring infections such as bronchitis or pneumonia and loss of appetite.
  • Colorectal cancer: Changes in bowel habits, blood in stools, rectal bleeding, constipation, diarrhea, thinner stools, abdominal bloating and feeling like the bowel doesn't completely empty.

Symptoms of less common cancers that affect men include:

  • Testicular cancer: A lump or a change in the size of a testicle, swelling and a feeling of heaviness in the scrotum.
  • Penile cancer: A change in the skin of the penis (e.g., color change, thickness of skin, rash), a sore or growth on the penis and swelling.
  • Male breast cancer: A lump or mass in the breast, nipple discharge or retraction, puckering or dimpling on the breast skin and the area on or around the breast appears red or scaly.
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