There are several signs that your symptoms are probably from a benign condition rather than cancer.
Though cancer causes a seemingly endless list of symptoms, there are features about those symptoms that would strongly point to a benign cause.
For example, a cancerous brain tumor is associated with headaches.
However, a headache that has been coming and going – over many months – without any other symptoms like nausea, vision or balance problems, cognitive changes or seizures – is most likely benign.
Can this Symptom Be Cancer?
“Intermittent or fleeting symptoms without specific location, association and [without] progressive nature are rarely due to cancer,” says Mark Levandovsky, MD, Founder and Medical Director of Preventive Medicine and Cancer Care.
Dr. Levandovsky is a board certified internist and oncologist/hematologist in practice for 20 years.
Dr. Levandovsky explains, “In my experience there is lots of fear and anxiety around a possibility of cancer and very little understanding in the population as to the causes and contributors to cancers, and why we have one in two men and one in three women diagnosed with cancer.
“The vast majority of these cancers could be prevented if we control the variable setup in our power, namely eating, drinking, activity and lifestyle/mental health choices.”
Dr. Levandovsky emphasizes the approach of a healthy lifestyle “rather than fretting about transient symptoms which we have very little, if any, control over.”
Circumstances Under Which Symptoms Probably Are NOT Cancer
Come and go nature or transiency. A tumor doesn’t come and go. It’s always there. The symptoms that it causes will also almost always be there.
Sometimes cancer can cause intermittent symptoms, but the longer the intermittency goes on without other symptoms developing or without the transient symptoms becoming more severe – the more likely that the cause is not cancer.
Longstanding symptom. If you’ve had constipation for years but other than that, you’re healthy and feel great, it’s a safe bet that you probably don’t have colon cancer.
But keep in mind that a symptom with a benign cause (e.g., irritable bowel syndrome) can also eventually be caused by cancer that just by chance happens to develop and produce the same symptom.
Lump – but painful. Most malignant lumps are painless. But many painless lumps are benign. Have it checked out to be sure.
Bilateral breast pain. Even pain in one breast is so unlikely to be breast cancer. Nevertheless, get it checked out.
Key Features of Benign Symptoms of a Non-Chronic Condition
• They are short-lived, never returning, or returning after a very long absence (e.g., a bad headache from neck muscle tension).
• They come and go over a long stretch of time without getting worse or without new accompanying symptoms.
Two examples are cramps and diarrhea from irritable bowel syndrome; or coughing/throat soreness/lump-in-the-throat sensation from laryngeal acid reflux).
• Acute or sudden nature, especially if the symptom is dramatic. For instance you’ve been as fit as a fiddle, then in the middle of the night awaken with nausea, stomach cramps and you vomit, after which you feel normal and the symptoms do not return.
Food poisoning, infections, colitis flare-ups, migraine attacks, GERD and side effects from a new medication are notorious for causing sudden and dramatic symptoms.
WARNING: Sudden dramatic symptoms can still mean cancer (e.g., functional neuroendocrine tumor of the pancreas), and slow-onset and more subtle symptoms can have a benign cause (e.g., ovarian cyst).
• Certainly do keep track of your symptoms.
• Get cancer screening according to your doctor’s recommendations.
• At the same time, learn to be sensible and tactical rather than over-reactive and emotional. After all … chronic anxiety is bad for the heart!
“One can more mindfully and intentionally change exposure/lifestyle habits which we have a lot of control over and which contribute to about 85% of cancers,” says Dr. Levandovsky.
Dr. Levandovsky provides personalized care to health conscious individuals as well as cancer patients and survivors, focusing on an integration of genetic/molecular risk assessments, prevention, education, nutrition and psycho-oncology.
Lorra Garrick has been covering medical, fitness and cybersecurity topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer.