A persistent cough, a sore that refuses to heal, unexplained weight loss and changing bladder habits.
They may seem innocuous, irritating facts of life.
But a leading charity has warned not to dismiss them and six other key changes in your body, for fear they could be a sign of something more sinister.
The 10 red flags for cancer are ingrained in the minds of doctors and healthcare workers the world over.
But Cancer Research UK is urging members of the public to familiarise themselves with the key symptoms – in their bid to help save lives.
A new study published today revealed one in two people born after 1960 is likely to develop cancer at some point in their lifetime.
With the risk increasing so quickly, experts fear as many as two-thirds of today’s children will be diagnosed with the disease.
But in many cases early diagnosis can mean the difference between life and death for cancer patients.
A survey by researchers on behalf of Cancer Research UK found almost half of those displaying at least one red flag for cancer did not visit their GP, thinking their symptoms ‘trivial’.
But experts at the charity advise if you or a member of your family is suffering at least one of these 10 red flag symptoms, book an appointment with a GP straight away:
- Persistent cough or hoarseness – could indicate lung cancer
- A change in the appearance of a mole – could mean you’re suffering skin cancer
- A persistent change in bowel habits – could be a sign of bowel this order
- A sore that does not heal – depends on where, a mouth ulcer could mean mouth cancer
- Persistent difficulty swallowing – can mean a person is suffering oesophageal this order
- Unexplained weight loss – can indicate several types of cancer
- Persistent change in bladder habits – could be a sign of bladder this order and prostate this order in men
- An unexplained lump – can be a warning sign of many forms of the disease
- Persistent unexplained pain – depending on where, can denote many types of cancer
- Unexplained bleeding – depends where but can mean bowel, cervical or vulval this order
Dr Katriina Whitaker, a senior research fellow at University College London, said many of the people interviewed as part of their study had red flag symptoms ‘but felt these were trivial’.
Other people decided not to go for a check up because they feared a cancer diagnosis, while some adopt a stiff upper lip.
Some people surveyed revealed a lack of trust in the health service, while others put their symptoms down to the signs of ageing.
Researchers in London and Hull examined how people who experience possible cancer symptoms decide whether or not to seek medical help.
They sent out a health survey, which was completed by more than 1,700 people, aged 50 or older from three London GP practices.
The questionnaire didn’t specifically mention cancer, but included a list of 17 symptoms including 10 warning signs of cancer.
More than 900 people (53 per cent) reported at least one of the 10 red flag symptoms during the last three months.
Researchers then interviewed around 50 of them, almost half of whom (45 per cent) had not seen their GP about their symptoms.
One patient, suffering persistent abdominal pain refrained from having a recommended test.
She said: ‘At times I thought it was bad… but when it kinds of fades away, you know, it doesn’t seem worth pursuing really.’
Another respondent, who experienced a persistent change in bladder habits, added: ‘You’ve just got to get on with it.
‘And if you go to the doctor too much, it’s seen as a sign of weakness or that you are not strong enough to manage things on your own.’
Among the reasons people gave for refusing to seek medical help was an instinct that something wasn’t right, and an awareness of fear they might have cancer.
One man, with an unexplained lump in his throat, said: ‘But always at the back of your mind you’ve always got the fear of cancer, well it’s best to check just in case.’
But fear was also a driving force to stop people getting checked by their GP.
And for some people, persistent symptoms led them to think the signs were normal for them.
Some waited for another reason to visit their GP, then mentioned their red flag symptom.
And others said they would rather use an emergency route, going straight to A&E for example, rather than wait for a referral to see a specialist from their GP.
Dr Whitaker said: ‘Many of the people we interviewed had red flag symptoms but felt that these were trivial and didn’t need medical attention, particularly if they were painless or intermittent.
‘Others felt that they shouldn’t make a fuss or waste valuable NHS resources.
‘The stiff-upper-lip stoicism of some who decided not to go to their doctor was alarming because they put up with often debilitating symptoms.
‘Some people made the decision to get symptoms checked out after seeing a cancer awareness campaign or being encouraged to do so by family or friends – this seemed to almost legitimise their symptoms as important.’
Dr Richard Roope, Cancer Research UK’s GP expert, said: ‘The advice we give is: if in doubt, check it out – this would not be wasting your GP’s time.
‘Often your symptoms won’t be caused by cancer, but if they are, the quicker the diagnosis, the better the outcome.
‘Seeking prompt advice from your GP about symptoms, either on the phone or during an appointment, could be a life-saver, whatever your age.
‘And the good news is that more than half of all patients diagnosed with cancer now survive for more than 10 years.’
Sara Hiom, director of early diagnosis at Cancer Research UK, added: ‘Spotting and treating cancer early means patients have a far better chance of beating the disease – so it’s important we understand why some people with potential symptoms decide not to get them checked out straightaway.
‘International comparisons have already shown us that the British public are far more worried about being a burden on the health system or ‘wasting the doctor’s time’ than in other developed countries.
‘This study gives us valuable insight into the decision-making process and could help us find ways to encourage everyone with worrying symptoms to seek help as early as possible.’