That nagging cough you just can’t shake; that small sore that just won’t heal; that new mole that looks a bit strange—these issues may seem too trivial to bother your doctor about.
Indeed, more than half of adults shrug off these issues as minor inconveniences and don’t make an appointment with their physician to get them checked out, according to a recent survey of 1,700 U.K. adults, published in the journal PLOS ONE.
But disregarding these seemingly small symptoms could potentially lead to big health consequences—they’re all possible indicators of cancer.
The survey was funded by Cancer Research UK, a charity that provides money for cancer science and research, and was conducted by a team of researchers from the University College London, led by senior research fellow, Dr. Katriina Whitaker. The respondents, all of whom were 50 years old or older, were given a list of 17 symptoms and asked to indicate which ones they’d experienced in the last three months, and whether the onset of the symptoms led them to seek medical attention. Ten of the 17 symptoms were well-known signs of cancer:
- Change in the appearance of a mole
- Persistent change in bowel habits
- Persistent change in bladder habits
- Unexplained cough or hoarseness
- A sore that does not heal
- Persistent difficulty swallowing
- Unexplained weight loss
- Persistent, unexplained pain
- Unexplained lump
- Unexplained bleeding
Most people didn’t connect these symptoms with cancer. Instead, they chalked their concerns up to other medical conditions—arthritis, cysts, infection and old age. “Even when people thought warning symptoms might be serious, cancer didn’t tend to spring to mind,” Whitaker points out in a press release. “This might be because people were frightened and reluctant to mention cancer, thought cancer wouldn’t happen to them, or believed other causes were more likely.”
The other seven symptoms on the list were not associated with cancer:
- Shortness of breath
- Sore throat
- Feeling your heart pound or race
- Feeling tired or having low energy
- Chest pain
The non-cancer symptoms were seen by the respondents as less threatening than those that might be indicative of cancer. However, of 53 the percent who reported experiencing a cancer ‘alarm’ symptom, only two percent actually sought medical attention for it.
Whitaker does caution patients against being too alarmist, “Most people with potential warning symptoms don’t have cancer,” she says. But she also points out that there are benefits to having any concerning health problems checked out sooner, rather than later—even if cancer isn’t the cause.
“Making that doctor’s appointment is important,” Sara Hiom, the director of early diagnosis at Cancer Research UK, “it’s not a waste of time for the GP [general practitioner] or the patient—it could really save your life.”