Topics: Cancer Screening
April 30, 2020
While it’s important to stay vigilant about changes in our bodies at all times, it’s especially important right now during the COVID-19 pandemic. Routine doctor visits are being postponed, including normal checkups, and it may be hard to get an appointment once the doctor’s office reopens.
Besides checking yourself for COVID-19 symptoms seemingly 10 times a day, you should also pay attention to how you feel otherwise. There are some general warning signs as well as some at-home cancer screenings you can do on your own. If you notice anything out of the ordinary, reach out to your doctor to start a discussion.
Know Your Own Body
The first rule is to know your own body . There are a certain number of aches and pains we feel as we get older, but if something feels more significant than normal, you should take note.
By having a general understanding of what’s normal for you… you can pay better attention to any warning signs that your body may be sending.
How to Monitor Yourself for Cancer Symptoms at Home
Here are some general at-home screenings and general health monitoring you can do on your own.
Watch for General Signs Something is Wrong
There are some general signs that something is wrong with your body. These aren't specific to cancer (and some of them can also be caused by the stress we are all under right now). In general, though, watch for.
- Unexplained fatigue. This is a symptom of Coronavirus. But if you’ve tested negative and you still feel overwhelmingly tired without a good reason, take note of this.
- Weight changes, in either direction. If you are anxious right now you may be stress eating or losing your appetite, so take this into account. If you aren't changing your exercise or eating habits too much, take note if you gain or lose 5 pounds or more in a matter of a few weeks.
- Indigestion that does not respond to normal medications or comes and goes for three weeks or more.
A persistent cough, trouble breathing, muscle pain and fever can all be signs of something wrong, but in most cases is not likely to be cancer, and rather is a symptom of a viral or bacterial infection. If you have tested negative for COVID-19 after showing these symptoms, and the issues continue with breathing or coughing, you should reach out to your primary care doctor to discuss other possible causes.
Unusual or Unexpected Bleeding
As mentioned before, women should take note if there is unusual vaginal bleeding, including bleeding outside of your normal cycle or bleeding or spotting after menopause. Talk to your gynecologist. (Again, know your body. Some people get this all the time and it can also happen when you're on the pill).
Also contact your doctor if you start to notice any of the following:
- Bleeding from a mole or wart you did not scratch.
- Blood in your urine.
- Blood in semen.
- Vomiting, spitting, or coughing blood,
- Frequent nosebleeds.
You know your normal breasts; if there are lumps, inflammation, changes to your nipples or unusual discharge then you should contact your doctor. Also, note any lumps you might feel in the breast and talk to your doctor right away about it. While it may be difficult to get scheduled for a routine mammogram for a while, you can be given a diagnostic mammogram if your doctor feels it necessary. Check out these guidelines on how to perform self exams at home.
Men should also do regular breast exams, especially if they have a family history. Read more about what every man needs to know about breast cancer.
Changes to Scrotum or Testicles
Make sure that you routinely check your testicles and scrotum for firmness, lumps, or enlargement. These can also be caused by an infection, so talk to your doctor if you notice anything unusual. To learn more about self-exams visit the Testicular Cancer Society website.
Changes to your Skin
Skin cancer is very common, especially amongst paler-skinned individuals, but dark skinned people can get it too. You may not be getting into the doctor for regular, in-person skin checks so take note of:
- Any changes to moles, freckles, birthmarks, etc.
- A small dome-shaped bump which is pink or purple and growing.
- Changes in skin color or texture.
- Unexplained bruising or bright red spots.
- Any moles that start to bleed without having irritated it.
Pain in any part of your body that doesn't appear to have a reason for it is always a warning sign. If, in the absence of injury, you have pain in your joints or bones, or in the back of the lower legs this can be a warning sign. Also watch out for abdominal pain and bloating (especially if you haven't eaten anything unusual), pain during intercourse and pain when coughing that is not a result of having had a bad cough for a while. Pain in your lower back or abdomen that you can't explain is another issue, for example if you are not constipated.
Changes in Bathroom Habits
Pay attention to how often you urinate and have a bowel movement and be aware of what is normal for you. Changes in your bathroom habits can be an early indicator of a few different conditions, some of which could be cancer including: urinary tract, colorectal or prostate cancer.
While mild diarrhea can sometimes be an early sign of COVID-19, persistent changes can indicate a problem. With all of the stress lately, occasional diarrhea or loose stools aren't too concerning. However, if it's ongoing for a few days, talk to your doctor. It's most likely not cancer, but you can become dehydrated if it goes for too long. Additionally, for many patients, at-home colorectal screening can be an option if you can’t get in for a regular colonoscopy (recommended for everyone age 50+). Learn more about the at-home colorectal screening from Cologuard.
- Repeated and frequent diarrhea or constipation for no apparent reason. (This can also be a sign of IBS or another digestive problem).
- Constant urges to urinate or have a bowel movement, especially if nothing comes of them
- Not feeling empty after going to the bathroom.
- Pain or difficulty going to the bathroom.
- Change in the normal size, shape, and color of your stool (again, know your body. Some foods may induce stool changes).
- Tea-colored urine.
- Pale or unusual smelling stool.
You should be checking your temperature regularly right now anyway. So, it's important to be aware that a persistent low grade fever of about 100, especially if you don't have any other symptoms, is a sign that something is wrong. It may be COVID-19 and you may want to get tested. If the test is negative and the fever continues, you should reach out to your doctor. If you aren't aware of your normal baseline temperature, now is the time to take your temperature morning and night for a few days so you know if you normally run hot or cold.
Changes in the Mouth or Throat
The other kind of routine appointment that may not be on your regular schedule right now is your visit to the dentist. Dentists are the first line of defense in screening for oral and throat cancer. Without that regular check, you should watch for:
- Pain or numbness in your mouth.
- Mouth ulcers that don't go away, especially if not associated with biting your own cheek.
- Difficulty chewing, swallowing, or speaking.
- A swelling on one side of your neck.
- Changes to your bite (if your teeth don't seem to be coming together right).
- Excess saliva.
- Change in the pitch of your voice that lasts for more than two weeks.
- Pain when swallowing.
- Hoarseness that lasts more than two weeks.
It’s Not Necessarily Cancer
Remember, with many of these changes are explanations that don’t mean cancer. But at the same time you don’t want to ignore something and think it’s just nothing. It’s best to have it checked out.
Right now we each have to do our part to monitor our own health but don’t send yourself into a panic. Just be aware of what’s normal and take note if you see changes that don’t go back to normal after a week or two.
If you can’t get in to see your doctor in person, many doctors can now conduct some appointments via teleconference or phone call. And, as always, make sure that you know what cancer screenings you should be getting and if there are specific things you should be doing at home to better monitor your health. Even if you’re a cancer survivor, be sure you get screened for the other types of cancer at regular intervals.