Changes in our bodies come and go, so which ones should we look for – and have checked out? Dr Mel Wynne-Jones tells us...

Cancer cells

Do you know which bodily changes could be cancer symptoms?© iStock

One in three of us will eventually develop a cancer and, currently, one in four of us dies from the disease.

Earlier diagnosis can improve survival rates and reduce extensive treatments for many of the 300,000 cancers that are diagnosed annually in the UK.

The Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, recently announced that people with suspected cancer should have tests that give them the all-clear or a diagnosis within four weeks. However, pressure on tests such as scanning and endoscopies (telescope examinations) mean that this may not become a reality until 2020.

In the meantime, how can we decide when symptoms are serious or worrying enough to consult our doctors?

New guidance for GPs

NICE, the National Institute for health and Care Excellence, says a new approach, covering children, young people and adults, could save 5,000 lives a year. The new guidance focuses on symptoms as well as diseases, which makes sense as symptoms are what we notice.

NICE has also lowered the threshold for referral, taking age into account, advising GPs to refer us for tests if there’s a 3% (previously 5%) possibility that our symptoms could mean cancer.

And if they don’t justify an immediate referral, NICE says we should be given ‘safety-netting’ advice, so we know how long to wait before coming back if our symptoms persist or certain new ones appear.

Symptoms to take seriously

We can’t usually diagnose our own cancers, but we can be aware of the symptoms that just might be early signs. So NICE has set out guidelines for different symptoms, or combination of symptoms, for patients as well as GPs.

These include unexpected bleeding or bruising, lumps and pain, which should always be checked out swiftly.

You should also ask your GP for tests for ovarian cancer if you have abdominal symptoms, which include persistent bloating or distension, especially if you’ve had them for more than 12 days a month, or you’re over the age of 50.

The guidelines also cover symptoms affecting the chest, bones, skin, urinary, digestive and nervous systems, and non-specific features of cancer, such as unexplained weight or appetite loss, fatigue, fever, sweats, pallor, itching or recurrent infections, which you should always get checked out by your GP.

Reading the guidance may feel scary, especially if you worry about your health, but there are more than 200 types of cancer and they don’t all behave the way textbooks say.

Most of our symptoms (and research suggests most of us get three or four a week!) are probably nothing to panic about.

But if they’re in the guide or are severe or don’t go away, see your GP quickly.

To find out more, go to the Information for the Public section at nice.org.uk/
guidance/ng12.

Reducing our risk

We can change our lifestyle factors that are linked to cancer, such as smoking, drinking more alcohol than recommended, being overweight or obese, eating too much fat or not enough fruit and veg and not being regularly active.

6 Self-checks to carry out regularly

1 Be aware of your body and how it behaves. Note any changes and when they started.

2 Check skin monthly for new or changing moles (size, shape, surface, borders, colour, crusting, bleeding). Taking monthly photos to check for changes may help.

3 Stand on the scales once a month and check out unexplained weight loss of more than a couple of pounds.

4 Look out for screening invitations for breast and cervical cancer (mammograms and ‘smears’).

5 Have regular dental checks – dentists are trained to spot mouth cancer, even if you haven’t noticed any persistent sores, ulcers or white/red patches.

6 Find out your family history (who had what cancer and at what age) and ask your GP if you’re at increased risk.