Could it be a sign of cancer?

A lot of the time, small changes in our bodies are harmless. But getting checked early could make all the difference, says Associate Professor Craig Sinclair from Cancer Council Victoria.

Written by Craig Sinclair
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Too often we brush off changes to our body. We excuse a niggling cough as a cold we can’t shake. And tell ourselves that new spot is just a sign of getting older. A change may be harmless. But it could also be an early symptom of something much more serious – cancer.

The earlier a cancer is diagnosed, the better chance a person has for treatment. That’s why you should always see your GP as soon as possible to check out anything that looks and feels unusual or a bit off.

Changes to watch out for

Getting to know how your body normally looks and feels will help you spot any changes sooner. Remember – these signs don’t mean you have cancer, but it’s important to get them checked out by your GP.

Here are a few things to pay attention to:

  • Coughs or hoarseness that won’t go away.
  • Unexplained weight loss.
  • New skin spots, or spots that change in colour, size or shape.
  • Changes in your toilet habits or blood in a bowel motion.
  • Lumps, sores or ulcers that don't heal.
  • Unusual breast changes – lumps, lumpiness, a thickened area, unusual nipple discharge, a nipple that turns inwards (if it hasn't always been that way), a change in shape or colour or unusual pain.
  • For women, any loss of blood, even if it's a few spots between your periods or after they've stopped.

Do you need to screen for cancer?

Some cancers have screening programs to help find those changes you’ve missed, or for cancers where there are no obvious symptoms. So make sure you take part, even if you feel well.

Bowel screening

If you’re aged 50-74, complete every two years.

The bowel screening test is mailed to the homes of eligible people through the Australian Government’s National Bowel Cancer Screening Program. It’s free, simple to use, and can be completed from the comfort of your home.

As many as 90% of bowel cancers can be successfully treated if found early, so make sure to complete the test when it’s sent to your home – it could save your life.

Breast screening

If you’re a woman aged 50-74, complete every two years.

The breast screening test is also available for free through BreastScreen Australia, the Government’s national breast screening program. Women aged 40 to 49 and those aged over 74 can also be screened free of charge, although they are not sent invitation letters.

Mammographic screening is the best method for detecting breast cancer early, before it can be felt or noticed.

Cervical screening

If you’re a women aged between 25-74 years, you will be due for the new test two years after your last Pap test. Complete the new Cervical Screening Test every five years.

The Pap test has been replaced with a new, more accurate and effective Cervical Screening Test. For women, it will feel like nothing’s changed – the doctor or nurse will use the same technique to collect a sample of cells from your cervix. The change is taking place behind the scenes where the cells will be analysed for HPV, which is the main risk factor in the development of cervical cancer.

You will be due for your first Cervical Screening Test two years after your last Pap test. If it’s been more than two years since your last Pap test, talk to your doctor as soon as possible about being screened.

The good news is that with the new test, your screening interval will become every five years.

Changes to reduce your risk

Did you know one in three cancers are preventable? Adopting small changes to your lifestyle can help reduce your risk.

Quit smoking

From yellow fingers to increased risk of 16 cancers and stroke, the effects of smoking range from annoying to fatal. The good news is as soon as you quit smoking, your body goes into repair mode. For support, call the Quitline on 137 848, visit quit.org.au or speak to your GP.

Get active and eat well

A healthy diet, physical activity and maintaining a healthy weight can have a huge impact on our cancer risk (as well as type 2 diabetes and other serious health problems). Start with simple tweaks like taking the stairs, swapping your sugary drinks for water and watching your portion size. Check out livelighter.com.au for more healthy tips.

Take care of your skin

You were told to ‘Slip, Slop, Slap’, back in your school days, but being SunSmart isn’t just for the kids. Check the sun protection times each day on the free SunSmart app and make sure you wear covering clothing, slop on SPF30 (or higher) broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen, slap on a broad-brimmed hat, seek shade and slide on sunglasses outside during these times.

Limit your alcohol

If you choose to drink, try keeping it to no more than two standard drinks a day. One standard drink is about one pot of beer, a small glass of wine or 30 ml of spirits. If you need some motivation just check out how many kilojoules are in your drink of choice. Some drinks can be the equivalent of chowing down on a burger!

For more about early detection and cancer prevention visit cancervic.org.au

Written by Craig Sinclair

Adjunct Associate Professor Craig Sinclair is Head of Prevention at Cancer Council Victoria. He is one of Australia’s leading experts in skin cancer prevention and has authored over 30 peer reviewed publications.

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