A Sign Of Aging Or A Symptom Of Cancer?

February 10, 2019

Cancer survivors struggle to sort out "normal" signs of aging from symptoms of cancer's return.

It is sometimes difficult and even frightening to try to figure out if a pain is "just" a pain or if it is a symptom of cancer. I was diagnosed with cancer for the first time in my mid-forties. I guess I would call that middle age. I learned that was, in fact, a "young" age to develop breast cancer. I know I am not young and yet since cancer, I struggle with separating normal aging effects from symptoms of cancer's return.

When is something a cancer survivor experiences due to aging and when is it something to worry about? Do you ever voice a health concern to a loved one or friend just to be told, "Oh, you're just getting older"? I would love to respond, "Hey, cancer survivors would love to get older!" Instead, I just bite my tongue. I understand that they don't get it.

I don't think cancer survivors are alone out there with this worry. For example, I would guess heart attack survivors have concern if they feel their heart racing or experience tightness in their chest. Regardless of whether it is cancer or something else, it is wise to know what symptoms to notice. Are you a worrier? WebMD lists some of the signs and symptoms of cancer. Some physical changes could also just be signs of aging. The Mayo Clinic details the signs of aging and how to address them. As a two-time cancer survivor, it seems wise to educate myself.

How can cancer survivors sort it all out? First, talk to your oncology team. As a breast cancer survivor, I learned that the symptoms to be concerned about (besides the obvious of finding a lump in a breast) involved bone, brain, liver, or lungs. Second, if a worrisome symptom pops up, don't just sit on it. Pick up the phone, make the appointment, and get it promptly checked out by the doctor. Sitting on it just causes more stress and worry. Most cancer survivors have already had enough of that. Third, be an adult— stay up-to-date with regular check-ups, follow-up appointments and screenings. Finally, remember but don't dwell on the fact that as a cancer survivor, you could have a reoccurrence or a new, unrelated cancer rear its ugly head.

Cancer survivors learn to expect the unexpected, or at least to allow that it is a possibility. Several years after breast cancer, I had an unrelated melanoma on the opposite shoulder. I was glad that, once again, it was caught early on a routine annual full body skin-screening exam. I have been fortunate to be cancer-free since then.

Cancer survivors can also carefully do their own online symptom research—using reputable resources like major research hospitals and cancer organizations.

I do move more slowly. I broke two bones in my foot last year. My back sometimes hurts, but it sometimes hurt before cancer too.

Vigilance is prudent, but obsession can be harmful. Cancer survivors learn to walk this narrow line. When you can put months and years instead of just days and weeks between you and your cancer diagnosis, that will help too, even though we know there are no guarantees. A cancer survivor's ongoing normal includes concern about aches and pains and other physical changes that happen.

Stay busy and stay connected. Help other people when you can. Watch for and quickly report any health changes. Above all, don't sit still and let worry eat away at you. Life will march on whether or not you let health-change worries rule your life. You can do this and yes, you are getting through this!


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