Red Flag Cancer Symptoms You Should See A Doctor About

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The press may have been reporting on the difficulties of seeing a GP face-to-face recently, but don’t let that put you off approaching your local surgery – they want to see you. Especially if you are experiencing abdominal or urological symptoms, such as persistent diarrhoea or blood in the urine.

“From an NHS England survey we know that 74% of people said if they got symptoms like this, they would not want to worry their friends or family, and 50% said they’d be reluctant to go and see their GP because of embarrassment or not wanting to waste their time,” says Dr Hillary Jones.

“And 71% of people said that they would be only willing to go and see their GP if the symptoms were serious, in their view, but a third of them said they didn’t really understand what serious symptoms were.”

Jones is working with a new NHS campaign urging people to see their doctor if they do have these symptoms, which could be a sign of cancer. He was also keen to stress that the pandemic will not stop you seeing your GP.

“The NHS is open for business,” says Jones. “We are prioritising cancer and we are back to normal with cancer services. We’ve got COVID-19 secure hubs where people can go and not worry about COVID-19. It may be that your first consultation is an online consultation, but if the GP thinks that you have worrying symptoms, they will offer you a face-to-face consultation so that you can be examined and, if necessary, referred to hospital specialists. ‘We want to see you’ is the message.”

We asked Jones for more information on the symptoms that could indicate abdominal or urological cancer, and why it’s so important to catch these cancers early.

What symptoms should people look out for?

There are some red flag symptoms, which everyone should be aware of. If people have diarrhoea or persistent abdominal discomfort for more than three weeks, or if they experience blood in their pee even just the once, they should see their GP.

Other symptoms might be persistent bloating, unexplained weight loss, blood in the motions, a lump in your stomach or anaemia. Anything that is unexplained, not normal for you, get checked out. That’s what we’re there for.

It’s probably nothing serious, but you never know, and it’s really important to just get those symptoms investigated. Should it be one of those minority cases where it is cancer, the earlier the diagnosis is made, the greater the number of choices you have for treatment and the better the outcome is likely to be. It’s as simple as that.

What are the cancers that these symptoms could indicate?

Abdominal and urological cancers make up 44% of all cancer diagnoses in England and 41% of deaths. We’re talking about bowel cancer, ovarian cancer, kidney cancer, bladder cancer. These are the types of cancers that we’re particularly focused on right now.

Why is it so important to catch cancer early?

If you have stage one bowel cancer, in other words early bowel cancer, almost all people [93%] will survive for at least five years. However, if you wait till it becomes stage four that goes down to 10% survival at five years. If we look at ovarian cancer it’s 93% survival for five years in stage one, and 13% at stage four. Early diagnosis, better treatment, better outlooks, so it makes absolute sense to come to see us early.

What else could cause these symptoms?

Blood in the urine, for example, is often cystitis. It’s a simple urinary infection, which, if neglected, can cause blood in the urine. Sometimes, an enlarged prostate could be benign. You can get a kidney stone causing blood in the urine with abdominal bloating. And with diarrhoea, it could be irritable bowel syndrome.

But one can never just assume that it’s something relatively benign like that. There’s going to be a number of cases where it’s something more suspicious and it needs to be investigated.

Are people more likely to get these cancers at different ages?

Abdominal and urological cancers tend to be seen more in the over-50s. Nine out of 10 of these cancers will be seen in the over-50s. So the older you get, the greater the risk, but we do see some in younger people.

What does treatment typically look like?

There are all sorts of treatment options available, ranging from surgery to radiotherapy to chemotherapy to biological treatments. These days treatments are really tailored to the individual, the staging of the cancer, the type of cancer, how aggressive it is, how far it’s spread.

What’s really encouraging is that the pandemic has helped improve services. Out of necessity comes medical advancements. We’ve got things like colon capsule endoscopy. That means that instead of having a tube put down your throat looking at your oesophagus, your gullet and your stomach, or up the other end, you swallow a tiny camera in the equivalent of an antibiotic capsule, which takes pictures as it passes through you. Then the pictures are analysed by a computer.

This means less invasive treatment, fewer visits into hospital, and much quicker diagnosis. There’s also teledermatology, where you can send photographs of your skin problems for analysis online. These are ways of making sure that fewer patients need to go into hospital to have visits, and that treatment is more acceptable. Advances are being made all the time.

Nick Harris-Fry
Senior writer

Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.