It's no fun to think about problems with our health, but the earlier we catch issues, the better our chance of becoming healthy again. As uncomfortable as it is to think about, it's important for women to pay attention to the subtle early signs of breast and ovarian cancer. Both of these issues are best treated when they're caught early on, making it essential for women to be aware of changes in their body that could indicate either of these cancers.
When it comes to breast cancers, we're advised to do at-home self-exams, but it's trickier when it comes to ovarian cancer, as ovarian cancer often has no symptoms in the early stages. But that doesn't mean there aren't ways to catch it early. A regular pelvic exam can help check the ovaries and uterus for size, shape, and consistency. Ultrasounds and blood tests can help screen for disease without symptoms.
Many of the early symptoms of breast cancer and ovarian cancer can seem like symptoms caused by other issues — such as bloating, skin rashes, or feeling full — so they're often ignored. Although a little bloating doesn't automatically mean you have cancer, if you notice multiple symptoms that last for more than a few weeks, it can't hurt to see your doctor.
Here are 11 early signs of breast and ovarian cancer that every woman should know about.
1Nipple Changes - Breast Cancer
Changes in your nipple can be subtle, but if you notice any changes to one nipple in particular, such as an inversion, you'll want to get checked out. "Inverted/inward turned nipples can be normal, but if one nipple suddenly inverts, you must get examined," says Tsippora Shainhouse, MD, FRCPC, FAAD over email.
2Bruise-Like Appearance - Breast Cancer
Breast cancer can cause some skin changes on the outside as well. This could include a pink/red/purple bruise-like spot. "This is a non-tender area that usually covers over ¼ of the breast surface, is not related to physical trauma, and won’t heal," says Shainhouse. Also look out for a scaly, eczema-like patch, which could be a sign of Paget's Disease, a type of breast cancer.
3Tight Waistband - Ovarian Cancer
"If you notice that your pants/skirt waistband is really much tighter than it has been, and you haven’t noticed an all over weight gain — and it isn’t just a ‘pinch or two’ of fat — it could be a sign of fluid accumulation around the ovaries," says Shainhouse. "See your gynecologist ASAP. You might require an ultrasound to look for fluid and further testing if a tumor is suspected."
4Abnormal Bleeding - Ovarian Cancer
If you've been spotting between periods or bleeding heavily, you should go see a doctor. "Abnormal vaginal bleeding is less often described by patients, but can occur due to hormonal changes that can accompany ovarian cancer," says gynecologic oncologist Steve Vasilev, MD over email.
5Feeling Especially Full After Eating - Ovarian Cancer
If you can barely eat the food you used to love or feel like you get full extremely quickly, something might be up. One majorly subtle sign of ovarian cancer is feelings of fullness or loss of appetite in general, according to Cancer Research UK.
6Thickened Area Of The Breast - Breast Cancer
When checking your breast for lumps, it's also important to look for areas that seem to just be thicker as well, even if they're not "lumpy." "Not all breast cancers appear as an obvious lump," says researcher and breast cancer surgeon Dennis Holmes, MD over email. "Some breast cancers like 'lobular' breast cancer typically develop as an area of breast thickening because the cancer cells extend over a broad area, rather than in a compact area."
7Constant Urge To Urinate - Ovarian Cancer
Ovarian cancer can cause changes in your urinary habits, according to Medline. This could include anything from a frequent need to urinate, an urgent need to urinate, or having to urinate much more than usual.
8Nipple Discharge - Breast Cancer
Nipple discharge — that's not milk — can be an early sign of breast cancer. "New discharge from one nipple can be a sign of ductal disease," says Shainhouse. This is discharge that comes out on its own, not from squeezing.
9Itchy Breasts - Breast Cancer
Although it's very likely that your itchy breasts are caused by a rash or another infection, they can also be a sign of inflammatory breast cancer. With this type of cancer, skin over the tumor can become red, inflamed, painful and itchy, according to Cancer Research UK.
10Upper Back, Shoulder, Or Neck Pain - Breast Cancer
Sometimes, breast cancer pain will occur in the upper back, shoulder, and neck and can be mistaken for something like sore muscles, according to The Huffington Post. However, unlike sore muscle pain, this pain will not diminish with stretching or changes in position.
11Constipation - Ovarian Cancer
Changes in bowel habits can also indicate ovarian cancer. Along with bloating and abdominal pain, many women also experience constipation, according to Cancer Research UK. Tummy troubles don't automatically mean ovarian cancer, but if it becomes something that happens frequently, it can't hurt to get checked out.