A breast lump. A persistent cough. Unexplained bloating and belly pain.
When you experience a health issue beyond the typical tension headache, runny nose, or aching back, your mind starts to race.
"What could this be? Is it a sign of" cancer?"
Cancer is the big gorilla in the corner - the illness everyone knows about, but no one wants to acknowledge. "The Big C," people use to call it, back in the day when most if not all cancers were truly deadly killers.
These days, many cancers can be controlled, if not cured. Two of the most common breast and prostate cancer have much better outcomes than they did in the past. Still, anxiety around cancer fuels irrational behavior - especially when new health symptoms trigger the fear that you might have it.
Have you been through "cancer panic"? Stressed over a symptom that turned out to be something inconsequential? Read these five rules for dealing with a "Do I have cancer?" anxiety attack.
First, don't panic.
Most cancers are either very or fairly slow growing. For instance, the typical breast cancer lump that's large enough to feel has probably been growing for about 8 years. Cancer isn't a broken leg or sliced finger; think about what you're going to do, rather than call your doctor in a panic or even head to the emergency room.
Write down everything you know about your symptom.
When did it start? Is it constant, or intermittent? Does [the pain, the lump, the cough] change depending on time of day, or time of month? Have you been doing anything to treat it?
When you see the doctor, s/he's going to ask you all of these questions, and more; you'll get a faster diagnosis if you have the answers ready. So if you haven't already, write down anything you can think of about your worrisome symptom; and start keeping a "symptom diary," detailing how it changes (or doesn't) each day.
Call your doctor.
Don't bypass your GP and contact a specialist; your family doctor may not ultimately be the best person to make a cancer diagnosis, but the system demands that you start at the beginning, for quickest results. Your doctor will listen to your symptoms, then decide what comes next: a course of medication, a referral to a specialist, some imaging tests - or "watchful waiting."
Find out if you have a family history.
Some cancers (breast, ovarian, colorectal, stomach, and uterine, among others) have a genetic component, and can run in families. If there's anyone else in your family who's had cancer, get the following information, if possible:
-Type of cancer
-Age at diagnosis
-Approximate year diagnosed
If your doctor decides your symptom warrants further testing, s/he'll find the information useful in deciding how to proceed.
Google your symptom; but don't believe everything you read.
There are a lot of unreliable health sites out there, sites whose bottom line is simply that: the bottom line. While not apparent, they may be hyping medical devices or supplements; or they may be lobbying for an industry group.
The best medical information can be obtained from non-commercial sites like the American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute, and the Mayo Clinic. If you stick to those for the hard facts - and to trusted sites like HealthCentral for support as you go through the diagnosis process - you won't go wrong.
See more helpful articles:
A Guide to Breast Cancer Symptoms
Fast FAQS: Armpit Lumps
Breast Lump FAQS
Breast cancer survivor and award-winning author PJ Hamel, a long-time contributor to the HealthCentral community, counsels women with breast cancer through the volunteer program at her local hospital. She founded and manages a large and active online survivor support network.