Top five cancers: Symptoms you should look out for to get help

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The top five cancers in East Africa are breast, cervical, prostate, oesophagal and colorectal cancers. PHOTO | SHUTTERSTOCK

The top five cancers in East Africa are breast, cervical, prostate, oesophagal and colorectal cancers. If you are a healthy person, listen to your body to notice any new changes that could lead to cancer.

Several cancers have symptoms that could also be caused by other things that may not necessarily be cancer, but it’s important to not ignore any new developments or symptoms and go to the hospital to get help.

Here’s what to be on the lookout for in these common cancers:

Breast cancer

For breast cancer, the typical presentation is a painless, progressive breast lump. Some lumps may be detected by screening on mammography before one starts to feel a lump. However, as the cancer becomes more advanced, you may develop things like skin changes showing an orange-peel appearance, nipple retraction and changes and occasionally a bloody nipple discharge. Therefore, any new breast changes should be interrogated thoroughly.

Cervical cancer

Cervical cancer may typically present with bleeding that is not around your period and may have pelvic pain or a foul-smelling odour or discharge from the vaginal area. It may also present with pain during intercourse or bleeding. However, keep in mind that these symptoms could be caused by several concerns. Consult a healthcare professional if anything new develops.

Prostate cancer

Prostate cancer may occasionally present with symptoms of prostate enlargement, which tend to occur as one grows older.

The more common presentation is usually benign urinary symptoms. Sometimes it may present with symptoms of benign prostate enlargement, which is accompanied by urine frequency, urgency and difficulty when passing urine. As the disease progresses, one may have pain on occasion but the initial signs might be quite subtle. This is why it might be important to speak to your clinician about screening if you are of African ancestry and about 50 years old.

Esophageal cancer

Esophageal cancer tends to present with progressive difficulty swallowing, and some occasional pain on swallowing.

The decreased oral intake may ultimately result in progressive nutritional impairments, weight loss and nutrition and electrolyte imbalances causing malnutrition.

Colorectal cancer

On colorectal cancer, depending on where the cancer is located in the intestine, one may experience either change in bowel patterns, which could be either constipation or diarrhoea, or sometimes a feeling of incomplete voiding (like not everything has come out after a long call), fresh bleeding from the rectum may occur which is frequently painless or sometimes it might be as subtle as a change in colour of the stool which usually turns black. Sometimes, it presents with occasional abdominal pain or abdominal swelling.

Again many of these symptoms can be mimicked by common conditions so it is important not to assume that every new symptom is a cancer. For instance, nine out of 10 breast lumps are not a cancer and hormonal imbalances may lead to abnormal uterine bleeding.

It is however important to ensure that one does not ignore any new symptoms and that one gets them addressed by a trained healthcare worker. It is also important to remember that one does not need to have symptoms to go for screening for common cancers, breast, cervical and prostate when one gets to the appropriate age for instance a mammogram at 40 years of age. Most cancers if detected early and treated appropriately are potentially curable and have a good long-term outcome.

The writer is a Consultant Breast Surgical Oncologist at Aga Khan University Hospital, President of the African Organisation for Research and Training in Cancer and a board member of the Union for International Cancer Control.

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