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The Subtle Cancer Symptoms I Nearly Ignored

I was diagnosed twice in five months. But I almost missed the signs.

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illustration of woman with exclamation points around her body
Juliette Borda
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When you get diagnosed with cancer twice in a five-month time frame, you pay attention to what your body is trying to tell you.

Like many serious health issues, cancer doesn’t always come at you screaming. In fact, mine grew slowly and silently for years. But then the “health-scare whispers” started, beckoning me to take notice.

My first wake-up call started with mild abdominal discomfort. My occasional cramping seemed unusual but not alarming. Then gastrointestinal issues flared up, which sent me researching everything from Irritable Bowel Syndrome to Crohn’s disease. My lower left abdomen felt tender when I lay on my belly. One time, I even felt a small lump there.

I visited my primary doctor, who prescribed a few antibiotics (thinking I had a bowel infection) and ordered some tests. After several weeks of getting a blood test, ultrasound and CT scan, nothing conclusive emerged other than an anemia diagnosis and a thickened endometrial lining. (What does that even mean?) My doctor suggested an MRI, which my insurance company promptly denied because of my inconclusive test results.

While my doctor and I battled it out with insurance, my health-scare whisper turned into a scream. I had canceled plans to go to a friend’s birthday party one night because my cramps had intensified. At 1 a.m., I woke up feeling terrible. Cramping evolved into severe stomach pains, vomiting, diarrhea, shaking — worse than I ever felt in my life. I asked my husband to take me to the ER, where I was admitted to the hospital and would spend the next eight days.

Another round of tests and a partial colonoscopy showed that a golf ball-sized tumor had created a blockage in my colon. I had surgery the day before Thanksgiving to remove the mass. Turns out I had colon cancer — just like my mom and my grandmother. Luckily, it was Stage 1, had not spread, and didn’t require chemo or radiation.

My second go-round with cancer (just five months later!) also started with whispers. Since I was postmenopausal, I found it odd that I started occasionally spotting. No other symptoms to report. But then I remembered that thickened endometrial lining, which gave me a nagging feeling. Realizing I’d been overdue for a pap smear anyway, I scheduled an appointment with my gynecologist. She did a pap smear, ultrasound and biopsy on that thickened lining, promising to call me with the results a week later.

Four days later, I did get a call … to come into the office. No results over the phone? Uh, oh — bad news. I was right. Endometrial cancer this time.

Like last time, this diagnosis resulted in another surgery — a complete hysterectomy — to remove the cancer and a few lymph nodes. I lucked out again. This second cancer was also only Stage 1, had not spread, and didn’t require chemo or radiation.

Ironically, my pap smear came back normal! If I had ignored the spotting and forgot to mention that thickened lining to my gynecologist, who knows how long that endometrial cancer would have gone undetected.

I urge you to pay attention to those body signals whispering that something isn’t quite right. Neither of my cancers had any major symptoms. But those tiny whispers triggered me to get some testing done pronto. Thank God I listened.

Lisa Beach is a freelance journalist and copywriter. Her work has been published in the New York Times , Eating Well , Good Housekeeping , Parents , USA Today Pet Guide , and dozens more. Check out her writer’s website at