Scary Study: Most of Us Don't Recognize Common Cancer Symptoms

Laura Tedesco

Notice a worrisome lump? Getting checked out early could save your neck. (Fuse/Getty Images)

Sure, you may be labeled a hypochondriac if you rush to the doctor for every ache and pain, but new research suggests many of us could stand to take an extra dose of precaution. When people experience symptoms that may indicate cancer, they tend to dismiss the problem as anything but the Big C — a mindset that could lead to missed opportunities for early diagnosis, according to a new study in the journal PLOS ONE.

Past research has shown that cancer patients often realize, after the fact, that they failed to grasp the gravity of their early symptoms and, as a result, they didn’t seek help as quickly as they should have. “We wanted to actually capture a sample of people where cancer isn’t even on their radar — to find out what people actually do when they’re experiencing a symptom that could indicate cancer,” study author Katriina Whitaker, a senior research fellow at University College London, tells Yahoo Health.

To do so, the researchers asked 1,724 people, age 50 and older, whether they’d experienced any of 17 symptoms over the past three months on a persistent basis. The list of potential complaints included several known warning signs for cancer — for example, an unexplained lump, a change in the appearance of a mole, and unexplained weight loss — as well as “non-alarm” symptoms, such as tiredness or dizziness. 

Related: Body Zaps, Pangs and Jolts: What Are They—And Should You Be Worried?

If participants had experienced any of the symptoms, they were asked to identify a potential cause, then to rate how serious they thought the problem was. While 53 percent of people reported a red-flag symptom of cancer — persistent cough and persistent change in bowel habits were most common — only 2 percent of these respondents suspected that their health issue might be cancer. 

In many cases, the study participants made plausible self-diagnoses other than cancer. For example, they cited arthritis, infections, cysts, or reflux as likely causes of their symptoms. What concerned the scientists was people’s tendency to blame potentially serious symptoms on things like age or diet.

“As you get older, your risk of cancer goes up,” says Whitaker. “But people that are getting older are also experiencing more symptoms. And they normalize a lot of these symptoms, saying, ‘Well, it’s just an ache and pain because I’m getting old.’”

Even more troublesome was the most prevalent “diagnosis” for a change in the appearance of a mole: “I don’t know.” This is worrying, Whitaker says, “because we know there’s really high awareness that change in a mole is a sign of cancer.”

And if people did name a cause, it was often just “sun damage.” “They wouldn’t take the next step to link that to cancer,” she says. “They’re almost normalizing their symptoms, saying it’s just the sun or because I smoke. But those are really strong risk factors for cancer.” 

Related: The Disease Many Americans Don’t Know They Have

So why don’t people make the cancer connection when worrisome symptoms crop up? An attitude of invincibility may be partly to blame — that is, people think cancer happens to other people but not them, says Whitaker. But there may also be an element of fear: “People have quite an avoidant response to the mention of cancer,” she says. “It’s the dreaded disease.”

Combine that with a fear of being called a hypochondriac, and people may decide they don’t need to see a doctor, even if they think their symptoms are serious. “People are very worried about being hypochondriacs, and they’re worried about wasting the doctor’s time,” Whitaker says. In the study, 41 percent of people hadn’t contacted a doctor about symptoms that could indicate cancer. 

But, the fact is, catching cancer early significantly raises your odds of survival. Case in point: When breast cancer is diagnosed at stage I, the survival rate is 100 percent, compared with just 22 percent if diagnosed at stage IV, according to the American Cancer Society. “If you have a symptom that doesn’t go away, you need to go and get it checked out,” says Whitaker. The vast majority of people will be fine, she says, but for the people who are, in fact, experiencing a symptom of cancer, proactively seeking care may mean the difference between life and death. 

If you’ve recently experienced any of these potential symptoms of cancer (and they haven’t gone away), you should make an appointment with your doctor ASAP: 

  • Unexplained cough or hoarseness
  • Persistent change in bowel habits
  • Persistent unexplained pain
  • Persistent change in bladder habits
  • Unexplained lump
  • Change in the appearance of a mole
  • A sore that does not heal
  • Unexplained bleeding
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Persistent difficulty swallowing