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15 Warning Signs Of Cancer, Stages and Treatment
Cancer can cause many different symptoms, some subtle and some not at all subtle.
Some symptoms develop early in the course of cancer, such as a painless lump in the breast, and are therefore important warning signs that should be evaluated by a doctor. Other symptoms, such as weight loss or fever, develop only after the cancer progresses. Still other symptoms, such as a change in bowel habits, blood in the stool, or swallowing difficulty, are signs of cancer in specific sites of the body.
Because cancer is more likely to be cured if it is less advanced when treatment is begun, it is critical that cancer be discovered early. Some symptoms may give early warning of cancer and should, therefore, trigger a person to seek medical care. Fortunately, most of these symptoms are usually caused by far less serious conditions. Nonetheless, the development of any of the warning signs of cancer should not be ignored.
Some of the warning signs are general. That is, they are vague changes that do not help pinpoint any particular cancer. Still, their presence can help direct doctors to do the physical examinations and laboratory tests necessary to exclude or confirm a diagnosis. Other symptoms are much more specific and steer doctors to a particular kind of cancer or location.
Warning signs of possible cancer include the following:
.Unexplained weight loss
.Loss of appetite
.New, persistent pain
.Recurrent nausea or vomiting
.Blood in urine
.Blood in stool (either visible or detectable by special tests)
.A recent change in bowel habits (constipation or diarrhea)
.Changes in the size or color of a mole or changes in a skin ulcer that does not heal
.Enlarged lymph nodes
.A sore that does not heal
.A growth or mark on the skin that gets larger or changes in appearance
What Are the Stages of Cancer?
At diagnosis, your cancer will likely be given a stage, which refers to the extent of your cancer, including how large the tumor is and if it’s spread. Staging is key to formulating treatment plans.
There are several ways to stage cancer. The TNM system is the most widely used cancer staging system, according to the National Cancer Institute. It refers to T for tumor, N for nearby lymph nodes involved, and M for metastasis. Numbers after each letter provide more details about the cancer type.
For the stages you might commonly know—stage 1, 2, 3, 4—these numbers are used for many cancer types and are less detailed than the TNM system. Here’s what the NCI says about what each one means (and yes, there’s actually a stage 0):
0: Abnormal cells are present but have not spread to nearby tissue. Also called carcinoma in situ, or CIS. CIS is not cancer, but it may become cancer. Treatment varies by cancer type, as it so often does across all cancer types.
1, 2, 3: Cancer is present. The higher the number, the larger the cancer tumor and the more it has spread into nearby tissues. Treatment will vary based on your cancer type and number of stage, as will your outcomes.
4: The cancer has spread to distant parts of the body. It is possible to go into remission with stage 4 cancer—at that point your disease is considered a chronic, or ongoing, illness, where you live with controlled or stable cancer that has metastasized but is not growing.
What Are the Treatments for Cancer?
Now we’ve reached treatment, and one big reason why understanding cancer can be helpful: Precision medicine, a new way of approaching cancer treatment, delivers individualized therapy based on many factors, including specific inherited mutations in tumors and the hormonal status of cancers like breast and prostate.
It used to be, cancer treatment was just surgery and radiotherapy, with chemotherapy invented in the 1940s. But things have come a long way—even in the last 20 years—and cancer docs now have additional treatment options to offer cancer patients, like targeted therapy and immunotherapy.
You might receive one type of cancer treatment, or nearly all of them. It depends on what type of cancer you have and what stage it is. Here are specific cancer treatment types:
Surgery: Exactly what you think it is—the surgical removal of cancer from your body. For example, in a mastectomy, your doctor would use a scalpel (a small, thin knife) to surgically remove your breast. Another cancer where surgery is a main treatment is colon cancer. Surgeons can also use a laser in some cancer surgeries for the most precise cuts, like to treat tumors in cervical, vaginal, esophageal, and non-small cell lung cancers.
Radiation therapy: High, controlled doses of radiation shrink tumors and kill cancer cells.
Chemotherapy: Probably the most well-known type of cancer treatment, this one uses medication delivered via IV or as pills to kill rapidly dividing cancer cells. It wipes out both cancerous and healthy cells, however, leading to side effects including nausea and vomiting (which can be controlled with other medications).
Targeted therapy: Mainly called small-molecule drugs or monoclonal antibodies, this treatment type attacks specific mutations. Because the therapies target abnormalities in tumors directly, they tend to have fewer side effects than chemo. These drugs are showing great promise, but they’re not available for all cancer types or stages.
Hormone therapy: Hormone blockers, taken as a pill, stall the growth of certain types of breast cancer (endocrine- and progesterone-related) and prostate cancer (androgen-related).
Stem cell transplant: Also called a bone marrow transplant, this procedure restores blood-forming stem cells to cancer patients who’ve had high doses of chemotherapy or radiation therapy.
Immunotherapy: This newer treatment incorporates the body’s immune system, which is designed to detect and destroy abnormal cells, to kill all cancer cells. However, they tend to be specific to different cancer types, so are not available for a wide variety of cancers and stages at this time. One type of this therapy, called immune checkpoint inhibitors, are drugs that block the immune checkpoints that prevent a strong immune cell response. Stopping them allows immune cells to push back more powerfully against cancer cells. Another type of treatment, called T-cell transfer therapy, gives your T-cells—a type of white blood cell that helps protect the body against infection and just might help fight cancer—a much-needed boost to battle cancer cells.