Men, heed these possible clues and find cancer early, when it's more treatable.
By Kathleen Doheny
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD
Some men are notorious foot-draggers, especially when it comes to scheduling doctor visits. That's unfortunate. Routine preventive care can find cancer in men and other diseases in the early stages, when there are more options for treatment and better chances of a cure. Some men, though, would never go to the doctor except for the women in their life. According to Leonard Lichtenfeld, MD, deputy chief medical officer for the national office of the American Cancer Society, women are often the ones who push men to get screened for cancer.
Experts say that men could benefit greatly by being alert to certain cancer symptoms that indicate a trip to the doctor's office sooner rather than later. Some of those cancer symptoms in men are specific. They involve certain body parts and may even point directly to the possibility of cancer. Other symptoms are more vague. For instance, pain that affects many body parts could have dozens of explanations and may not be cancer. But that doesn't mean you can rule out cancer without seeing a doctor.
Cancer Symptom in Men No. 1: Breast Mass
If you're like most men, you've probably never considered the possibility of having breast cancer. Although it's not common, it is possible. "Any new mass in the breast area of a man needs to be checked out by a physician," Lichtenfeld says.
In addition, the American Cancer Society identifies several other worrisome signs involving the breast that men as well as women should take note of. They include:
- Skin dimpling or puckering
- Nipple retraction
- Redness or scaling of the nipple or breast skin
- Nipple discharge
When you consult your physician about any of these signs, expect him to take a careful history and do a physical exam. Then, depending on the findings, the doctor may order a mammogram, a biopsy, or other tests.
Cancer Symptom in Men No. 2: Pain
As they age, people often complain of more aches and pains. But pain, as vague as it may be, can be an early symptom of some cancers although most pain complaints are not from cancer.
Any pain that persists, according to the American Cancer Society, should be checked out by your physician. The doctor can take a careful history, get more details, and then decide whether further testing is necessary, and if so what kind. If it's not cancer, you will still benefit from the visit to the office. That's because the doctor can work with you to find out what's causing the pain and help you know what to do about it.
Cancer Symptom in Men No. 3: Changes in the Testicles
Testicular cancer occurs most often in men aged 20 to 39. The American Cancer Society recommends that men get a testicular exam by a doctor as part of a routine cancer-related checkup. And some doctors suggest a monthly self-exam.
Yu tells WebMD that being aware of troublesome testicular symptoms between exams is wise. "Any change in the size of the testicles, such as growth or shrinkage," Yu says, "should be a concern." In addition, swelling or a lump should not be ignored. Nor should a feeling of heaviness in the scrotum. Some testicular cancers occur very quickly. So early detection is especially crucial. Yu recalls a young man who waited until his testicle was the size of a grapefruit before coming in for help. "If you feel a hard lump of coal [in your testicle], get it checked right away," Yu says.
Your doctor will do a testicular exam and an overall assessment of your health. If cancer is suspected, blood tests may be ordered. You may undergo an ultrasound examination of your scrotum. Your doctor may also decide to do a biopsy, taking a tiny sample of testicular tissue to examine it for cancer.
Cancer Symptom in Men No. 4: Changes in the Lymph Nodes
If you notice a lump or swelling in the lymph nodes under your armpit or in your neck -- or anywhere else -- it could be a reason for concern, says Hannah Linden, MD. Linden is a medical oncologist and an associate professor of medicine at the University of Washington School of Medicine. She is also a joint associate member of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Wash. "If you have a lymph node that gets progressively larger, and it's been longer than a month, see a doctor," she says.
Your doctor will examine you and figure out any associated issues that could explain the lymph node enlargement, such as infection. If there is no infection, a doctor will typically order a biopsy.
Cancer Symptom in Men No. 5: Fever
Most cancers will cause fever at some point. Often, fever occurs after the cancer has spread from its original site and invaded another part of the body. But it can also be caused by blood cancers such as lymphoma or leukemia, according to the American Cancer Society. It's best not to ignore a fever that can't be explained. Check with your doctor to find out what might be causing it and if anything needs to be done.
Cancer Symptom in Men No. 6: Weight Loss Without Trying
Unexpected weight loss is a concern, Lichtenfeld says. "Most of us don't lose weight easily." He's talking about more than simply a few pounds from a stepped up exercise program or to eating less because of a busy schedule. If a man loses more than 10% of his body weight in a short time period such as a matter of weeks, it's time to see the doctor, he says.
Your doctor will do a general physical, ask you questions about your diet and exercise, and ask about other symptoms. Based on that information, the doctor will decide what other tests are needed.
Cancer Symptom in Men No. 7: Gnawing Abdominal Pain and Depression
"Any guy who's got a pain in the abdomen and is feeling depressed needs a checkup," says Lichtenfeld. Experts have found a link between depression and pancreatic cancer. Other symptoms can include jaundice or a change in the stool color, often a gray color.
Cancer Symptom in Men No. 8: Fatigue
Fatigue is another vague symptom that could point to cancer in men. But a host of other problems could cause it as well. Like fever, fatigue can set in after the cancer has grown. But it may also happen early in cancers such as leukemia or with some colon or stomach cancers, according to the American Cancer Society.
If you often feel extremely tired and it doesn't get better with rest, check with your doctor. The doctor will evaluate it along with any other symptoms in order to determine what's causing it and what can be done about it.
Cancer Symptom in Men No. 9: Persistent Cough
Coughs are expected, of course, with colds, the flu, and allergies. They are also sometimes a side effect of a medication. But a very prolonged cough -- defined as lasting more than three or four weeks -- should not be ignored, says Ranit Mishori, MD, assistant professor and director of the family medicine clerkship at Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C. That kind of cough warrants a visit to the doctor. It could be a symptom of cancer, or it could indicate some other problem such as chronic bronchitis or acid reflux.
Your doctor will take a careful history, examine your throat, check how your lungs are functioning, and, especially if you are a smoker, perhaps order X-rays. Once the reason for the coughing is identified, the doctor will work with you to determine a treatment plan.
Cancer Symptom in Men No. 10: Difficulty Swallowing
Some men may report trouble swallowing but then learn to live with it, Lichtenfeld says. "Over time, they change their diet to a more liquid diet. They start to drink more soup." But swallowing difficulties, he says, could be a sign of a GI cancer, such as cancer of the esophagus.
Let your doctor know if you are having trouble swallowing. Your doctor will take a careful history and possibly order a chest X-ray. The doctor may also send you to a specialist for an upper endoscopy to examine your esophagus and upper GI tract.
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Cancer Symptom in Men No. 11: Changes in the Skin
You should be alert to not only changes in moles -- a well-known sign of potential skin cancer -- but also changes in skin pigmentation, says Mary Daly, MD. Daly is an oncologist and head of the department of clinical genetics at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia.
She also says that suddenly developing bleeding on your skin or excessive scaling are reasons to check with your doctor. It's difficult to say how long is too long to observe skin changes, but most experts say not to wait longer than several weeks.
To find out what's causing the changes, your doctor will take a careful history and perform a careful physical exam. The doctor may also order a biopsy to rule out cancer.
Cancer Symptom in Men No. 12: Blood Where It Shouldn't Be
"Anytime you see blood coming from a body part where you've never seen it before, see a doctor," Lichtenfeld says. "If you start coughing or spitting up blood, have blood in the bowel, or blood in the urine, it's time for a doctor visit."
Your doctor will ask you questions about your symptoms. The doctor may also order tests such as a colonoscopy, which is an examination of the colon using a long flexible tube with a camera on one end. The purpose of a colonoscopy is to identify any signs of cancer or precancer or to identify what else might be causing the bleeding.
Cancer Symptom in Men No. 13: Mouth Changes
If you smoke or chew tobacco, you need to be especially alert for any white patches inside your mouth or white spots on your tongue. Those changes may indicate leukoplakia, a precancerous area that can occur with ongoing irritation. The condition can progress to oral cancer.
You should report the changes to your doctor or dentist. The dentist or doctor will take a careful history, examine the changes, and then decide what other tests might be needed.
Cancer Symptom in Men No. 14: Urinary Problems
As men age, urinary problems become more frequent, says Yu. He's talking about the urge to urinate more often, a sense of urgency, and a feeling of not completely emptying the bladder. "Every man will develop these problems as he gets older," he says. "But if you notice it and it concerns you, you should seek attention." That's especially true if the symptoms get worse.
Your doctor will do a digital rectal exam, which will tell him whether the prostate gland is enlarged. The gland often enlarges as a man ages. It's typically caused by a noncancerous condition called benign prostatic hyperplasia or BPH. Your doctor may also order a blood test to check the level of prostate-specific antigen or PSA. PSA is a protein produced by the prostate gland, and the test is used to help determine the possibility of prostate cancer. If the doctor notices abnormalities in the prostate or if the PSA is higher than it should be, your doctor may refer you to an urologist and perhaps order a biopsy.
Cancer Symptom in Men No. 15: Indigestion
A lot of guys, especially as they get older, think "heart attack" when they get bad indigestion, even if they've just eaten and drunk their way through a marathon Super Bowl viewing. But persistent indigestion could point to cancer of the esophagus, throat, or stomach and should be reported to your doctor.
Your doctor will take a careful history and ask questions about the indigestion episodes. Based on the history and your answers to the questions, the doctor will decide what tests are needed.
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American Cancer Society: "Additional Signs and Symptoms of Cancer."
National Cancer Institute: "Testicular Cancer: Questions and Answers."
Mary Daly, MD, oncologist and head, department of clinical genetics, Fox Chase Cancer Center, Philadelphia.
Hannah Linden, MD, medical oncologist and associate professor of medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine, and joint associate member, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle.
Ranit Mishori, MD, assistant professor and director of the family medicine clerkship, Georgetown University School of Medicine, Washington, D.C.
Debbie Saslow, PhD, director of breast and gynecologic cancer, American Cancer Society, Atlanta.
Leonard Lichtenfeld, MD, deputy chief medical officer, national office, American Cancer Society, Atlanta.
Evan Y. Yu, MD, assistant professor of medicine, University of Washington, assistant member, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, Seattle.
Reviewed on September 10, 2010
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