Maybe it’s a cough. Maybe it’s pain in your bones or a loss of appetite. Perhaps your digestive system has been a mess for weeks and you can’t figure out why. Then you have that frightening thought: Could it be cancer?
First, take a deep breath. Many benign conditions can mimic the symptoms of cancer. But don’t ignore the symptoms either. Only your doctor can tell you for sure what’s going on—diagnosing yourself on the internet won’t help.
“If you play your own doctor, you’re probably not going to get it right,” says UNC Health oncologist Jared Weiss, MD. “And even if you do, you’re not going to have a prescription pad or know what to do to make it better.”
Stay Calm, but Don’t Delay Seeking Treatment
It’s also important not to be too relaxed about lingering symptoms.
“If you have a cough, it’s reasonable to give it a few days to see if it’s just a cold,” Dr. Weiss says. “But if the cough is bad, or doesn’t improve, go see your doctor.”
The greatest danger of waiting to see your doctor is delaying the diagnosis, giving the disease time to progress before you start treatment, he says.
Take lung cancer, for example.
“The average presenting symptoms are far and away more likely to be something else,” he says. “If it’s pneumonia or COVID, your doctor can prescribe medications. If your symptoms don’t improve, your doctor should ask ‘What else can it be?’ Maybe then they send you to an oncologist to test for lung cancer.”
Often, an early diagnosis is crucial for curing cancer and other diseases.
“Half the lesson is don’t try to diagnose yourself,” he says. “The second half is don’t suffer in silence— go see your doctor.”
You might be nervous about getting a diagnosis, but not knowing what’s wrong can create anxiety, which can magnify symptoms.
“You can’t make it better—whether it’s COVID-19 or cancer—unless you know what it is,” Dr. Weiss says. “Don’t sit home trying to brave it out.”
And some symptoms, of course, such as severe pain or bleeding, trouble breathing and sudden confusion, warrant an immediate trip to the emergency department.
Research Health Information with Care
If you can, it’s best to see your doctor before doing your own research. That way, they can give you an expert diagnosis, or put you on the path to one, and then you can look up relevant information.
“It’s harder to make good use of information when you don’t know what you have,” Dr. Weiss says.
Once you have a diagnosis, learning about a disease can be helpful.
“An informed patient is great,” he says. “But we want them informed with accurate information, not just something that someone made up.”
As with any subject, inaccuracies, opinions and even facts taken out of context can cause needless worry. Make sure the sources you check are written and reviewed by medical professionals you can trust. Major hospital systems, medical schools and government health bodies such as the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are good places to start.
Dr. Weiss recommends Cancer GRACE (Global Resource for Advancing Cancer Education), a patient information and support site written by oncologists.
Work with Your Doctor to Stay Well and Get Better
Preventing disease is better than having to treat it, of course. The best things you can do to stay well are to eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly, quit smoking if you smoke, get adequate sleep and make sure you’re getting the recommended cancer screenings for your age.
“There are screening guidelines your doctor should be aware of for colorectal cancer, breast cancer, cervical cancer, prostate cancer and more,” Dr. Weiss says. “Screenings and early detection can provide the biggest reductions in human suffering.”
Dr. Weiss has another tip: Don’t be afraid to ask your doctor “what else?” if you’re not getting answers to what’s ailing you.
“Asking ‘what else’ is very powerful in medicine,” he says. “If something isn’t adding up, if the treatment isn’t making the patient better or the data isn’t lining up, think about what else could be causing the symptoms.”
If you are concerned about symptoms you are experiencing, see your doctor or find one near you.