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Potential signs and symptoms of cancer men should not ignore

Cancer and men
Men frequently ignore signs when something is wrong with their health.

It may sound like a stereotype, but study after study show that men in the United States are less likely to talk about their health than women. Men frequently ignore signs when something is wrong with their health, refuse to see their doctor for health issues and don’t often talk about their family history of diseases, such as cancer.

But ignoring warning signs and—and more importantly, not talking to a doctor about them—may decrease a man’s chances of detecting diseases, such as cancer, heart disease and other health issues early. When it comes to cancer, more treatment options may be available when the disease is diagnosed in an early stage, increasing the chances of a better outcome.

While cancer may not always have a recognizable symptom in early stages, there are some physical signs that shouldn’t be ignored. Symptoms that may warrant a visit to the doctor sooner rather than later include:

  • Rapid, unexplained weight loss
  • Blood in the urine or stool
  • Lumps or bumps that are increasing in size or not going away

“Unexplained bleeding should never be ignored,” says Sean Cavanaugh, MD, Chair of the Department of Radiation Oncology at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA). “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 men should pay attention to 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, he says.

“Men also need to examine themselves occasionally to detect changes in their penis or testicles,” Dr. Cavanaugh says. “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 may seem vague

Fatigue and a diminished energy are issues many of us experience in our busy lives. But either of these symptoms may signal a deeper health problem. Feeling tired is often dismissed or chalked up as stress, but it’s also one of the most common symptoms of cancer.

Evan Pisick, MD, Medical Oncologist at CTCA® Chicago, says some cancer symptoms such as pain may be subtle and develop over time. “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,” he says.

Other less-obvious symptoms of cancer include:

  • Persistent coughing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Unexplained fever
  • Persistent indigestion
  • Difficulty 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?

In some cases, early symptoms of various cancers can be identical to symptoms of other diseases or conditions. For example, Dr. Pisick cautions that some 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 develop as they age. Prostate cancer and BPH share several common symptoms, including weak urine stream, frequent urination, 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,” Dr. Pisick says.

If you do experience a symptom of cancer, see your doctor. But even if your symptoms are not acute, an annual physical exam is a good place to start talking to your doctor about what you’re experiencing. Learn about cancer screening recommendations for prostate, colorectal, skinlung and other types of cancer. And be sure to follow the recommended guidelines for cancer screening, especially as you get older. A series of diagnostic tests, including blood tests and imaging tests, such as a CT scan or X-ray, may be required in order for the doctor to determine what is causing your symptoms.

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

Here are symptoms to be aware of in the three most common cancers in men:

Prostate cancer Lung cancer Colorectal cancer
Pain or difficulty urinating Persistent cough lasting several weeks Changes in bowel habits
Frequent need to urinate Shortness of breath Blood in the stool, or rectal bleeding
Weak or slow urine stream Coughing up blood Feeling like the bowel won't empty
Blood in the urine or semen Recurring respiratory infections Constipation or diarrhea
Pain in the pelvic area Loss of appetite Thin, ribbon-like stools

Symptoms of less common cancers that affect men include:

Testicular cancer Penile caner Breast cancer
Lump on the testicles Changes in the skin on the penis Lump or mass on the breast
Swelling in the groin A sore or growth on the penis Nipple discharge
Heaviness in the scrotum Swelling Changes in the skin, such as dimpling, around the breast

Reducing risk factors

According to the World Health Organization, up to half of all cancers worldwide may be prevented with lifestyle changes, such as improving diet, quitting smoking and losing weight. Here are some tips for men to help reduce their cancer risk:

Don’t smoke: The association between smoking and many cancers is widely known. If you currently smoke, ask your doctor to work with you to develop a plan to quit.

Use sun protection: Skin cancer is one of the most preventable malignancies. Avoid sun exposure between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the sun’s rays are the strongest. Use sunscreen that protects against UVA and UVB rays and reapply often. Avoid tanning beds too.

Eat a healthy diet: Eat lean protein, such as chicken and fish, and limit fats. Eat five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables a day. If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation. Decrease your consumption of processed and packaged foods.

Maintain a healthy body weight: The link between obesity and a variety of cancers that affect men and women is well known. Almost 50 percent of people are overweight. Following a healthy diet and being physically active may help you maintain a balanced weight.

Exercise or get active: Get 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity every week. Exercise doesn’t always mean going to a gym. Work in your yard, paint a room, ride a bike, walk around the block or go dancing. All types of physical activity have health benefits, but be sure to talk to your doctor about potential limitations you may have.

Get immunized: Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a sexually transmitted virus that can lead to cervical cancer in women, and anal and throat cancer in both men and women. Hepatitis B is a sexually transmitted virus that can lead to liver cancer. Speak with your doctor about whether vaccines for HPV and hepatitis B are appropriate for you.

Get screened: Men should get screened for prostate, colorectal, lung (if they smoke), oral and skin cancer. Speak with your doctor about the appropriate time to start screening for these cancers.

Practice safe sex: Limit sexual partners and use condoms. The more sexual partners a person has over a lifetime equates to a higher likelihood of contracting a sexually transmitted infection such as HPV, hepatitis B, hepatitis C or human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). HIV can lead to AIDS and a higher risk of many cancers.

Get answers to questions about prostate cancer treatment.