If you knew the early warning signals of emerging serious health problems, you could act quickly. In some cases, you could prevent the illness-worsening, or reverse the problems, or get early treatment that could improve your chances or duration of survival. Early detection and intervention can and does save vast numbers of lives every year.
What are the early warning signals that everyone should know?
Here are 20 of the most common fatal diseases and some early warning signs, starting with cancers
Globally, it is the leading cause of cancer-related deaths. The common early warning signals include persistent cough, chest pain, coughing up blood, unexplained weight loss, and recurrent respiratory infections. Recognising these symptoms and, if spotted, seeking medical attention can lead to early diagnosis and treatment, significantly improving outcomes.
Lung cancer accounts for 12% of new cancer cases and 21% of all cancer deaths. Early detection leads to around a 56% five-year survival rate, and later detection has around a 5% rate.
Affects the colon or rectum. Early warning signs include changes in bowel habits, rectal bleeding or blood in the stool, abdominal pain or discomfort, unexplained weight loss, and fatigue.
About 11% of all cancer cases are colorectal. With early detection, the five-year survival rate is 93%. With later detection, the figure drops to around 14%. As with most cancers, the earlier it is detected, the higher the chances of five-year plus survival.
Many people assume it can only affect women. Around 99% of cases are women, and about 1% are in men. Early warning signals such as a lump or thickening in the breast or armpit, changes in breast shape or size, nipple discharge, and skin changes on the breast.
Self-breast examinations and regular screening help early detection and improves outcomes. The early detection five-year survival rate is upwards of 99%. Later detection drops the survival rate to 30%.
It only affects men. Early warning signs include urinary changes (such as frequent urination, weak urine flow, blood in urine), erectile dysfunction, discomfort in the pelvic area, and bone pain. Recognising these symptoms and consulting a healthcare professional for appropriate evaluation and testing can lead to early intervention and potentially curative treatment.
Prostate cancer is the second most common cancer for men. It accounts for around 7% of all cancers in men. Early detection helps push up the high five-year survival rate, which currently is around 99%. Prostate cancer is so common in older men (80 years plus) that 80% die with it, but not of it.
It is primarily caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). It seems to cause 90% of cervical cancer cases. Early warning signals include abnormal vaginal bleeding, pelvic pain, pain during intercourse, and unusual vaginal discharge.
Regular screenings, such as Pap smear tests and HPV testing, are hugely helpful for early detection and treatment. Cervical cancer accounts for 1% of all new cancers. The five-year survival rate is 91% when detected early and 60% when not.
Often associated with chronic liver disease or viral hepatitis, it may exhibit early warning signs such as unexplained weight loss, abdominal pain or swelling, yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice), and fatigue. These symptoms should prompt individuals to seek medical evaluation to identify the underlying cause and potential treatment options. The five-year survival rate with early detection is around 31%. With late detection, it is around 11%.
It is known for its aggressive nature. It can present early warning signs such as abdominal or back pain, unexplained weight loss, jaundice, loss of appetite, and digestive problems. Awareness of these symptoms, spotting them if they occur, and promptly consulting a healthcare provider can lead to early diagnosis and more effective treatment strategies. Five-year survival rates for early detection are around 44%, whereas later detection is around 15%.
It is the most common form of cancer. Its early warning signs can be changes in moles or other skin growths, the appearance of new spots, sores that don’t heal, and changes in skin pigmentation. The survival rates for early detection are 98–99%, depending on country and other factors.
Regular self-examinations and seeking professional inspection of any suspicious skin changes are crucial for early detection and treatment.
It primarily affects younger men. Its early warning signs include a painless lump or swelling in the testicles, testicular pain or discomfort, changes in testicular size or shape, and a feeling of heaviness in the scrotum. The five-year survival rate is 99%+ with early detection.
As with almost all cancers, the survival rate goes down with later detection. Recognising these symptoms and seeking medical assessment can lead to early diagnosis and successful treatment.
Has been called the “silent killer” due to its subtle symptoms. The early warning signs include abdominal bloating, pelvic pain or pressure, changes in bowel or bladder habits, and feeling full quickly when eating or drinking. Being alive to such symptoms and seeking appropriate medical assistance can contribute to the early
detection and improved outcomes. There is a five-year survival rate of around 92%, with early detection.
Cancer receives much media attention in discussions about fatal diseases. There are many other diseases, which with early detection, can have significantly improved outcomes. Here are 10.
Are those conditions affecting the heart and blood vessels connected to the heart, known as coronary artery disease. Early warning signs can include chest pain or discomfort (angina), shortness of breath, fatigue, dizziness, difficulty concentrating, irregular heartbeats, swelling in the belly, legs, ankles, or feet, and shortness of breath with activity or when lying down.
It is wise to be aware of and alert to these symptoms and to seek medical attention promptly if they occur to maximise the chances of improved outcomes. There are many types of heart disease, and the earlier they are detected, the better. Over recent times, heart failure survival rates have increased by about 7%. That is, the five-year survival rate is about 50%.
It occurs when blood flow to the brain is interrupted, causing damage. There are two main types: hemorrhagic strokes – bleeding in or around the brain, and ischemic strokes – a blockage cutting off the blood supply. Early warning signs may include sudden numbness or weakness in the face, arm, or leg (especially on one side of the body), confusion, trouble speaking or understanding speech, severe headache, dizziness, and difficulty walking.
Recognising these signs and acting swiftly by calling emergency services can minimise brain damage and improve outcomes. Hemorrhagic strokes have around a 50% survival rate, and ischemic strokes around 80%.
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
It is a chronic lung disease that includes conditions such as chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Early warning signs can include persistent cough with mucus, shortness of breath (especially during physical activity), wheezing, chest tightness, and frequent respiratory infections. Early medical evaluation and intervention can slow disease progression and improve quality of life. The five-year survival rate for people with COPD ranges from 40% to 70%, depending on severity.
Diabetes, or diabetes mellitus
To give its full name, it is a metabolic disorder characterised by high blood sugar levels. Early warning signs may include increased thirst and hunger, frequent urination, unexplained weight loss, fatigue, blurred vision, slow-healing wounds, and tingling or numbness in the hands and feet.
Early recognition of the symptoms and appropriate medical intervention and behavioural changes dramatically improves outcomes. People who detect their diabetes early and stick to the optimum treatment plan have a life expectancy comparable to those without diabetes. Around 50% of people with diabetes adhere to their treatment plan, with obvious consequences for those who do not.
It covers various conditions that affect the liver’s normal functioning. Early warning signs can be yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice), itchy skin, loss of libido, abdominal pain and swelling, fatigue, dark urine, pale or bloody stools, and easy bruising or bleeding.
Prompt detection and diagnosis, lifestyle modifications, and appropriate medical interventions can help manage liver disease and prevent further damage. There are many liver diseases, some are no more than life-style inconveniences, and others are life-threatening.
It refers to the impaired function of the kidneys, leading to the accumulation of waste and fluid imbalance in the body. Early warning signs can include changes in urination patterns (frequent urination, blood in urine, foamy urine), fatigue, swelling in the legs, ankles, feet, or hands, persistent itching, and decreased appetite.
Early detection and intervention can improve kidney health. For those who need a transplant, when received from a living donor, the five-year survival rate is around 93%.
Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia
These are progressive brain disorders affecting memory, thinking, and behaviour. Early warning signs may include memory loss that disrupts daily life, confusion with time or place, difficulty completing familiar tasks, withdrawal from social activities, mood and personality changes, and poor judgment.
Early intervention can help manage symptoms and enhance the quality of life. At last, there are now some emerging drugs which seem to slow down the progression of Alzheimer’s disease by about a third.
It is a potentially life-threatening condition resulting from the body’s overwhelming response to an infection. Early warning signs can include fever, rapid heart rate, rapid breathing, confusion, extreme fatigue, shortness of breath, and decreased urine output.
Recognising and acting on these signs to secure immediate medical attention is essential to prevent sepsis from progressing into a severe or fatal condition. The elderly and young children are most vulnerable to sepsis. The survival rate is about 80%, and even higher, close to 100%, with milder cases.
It is an infection (bacterial or viral) that inflames the air sacs in one or both lungs. Early warning signs can include coughing with phlegm or blood, chest pain, rapid breathing, fever, chills, fatigue, and shortness of breath. Early detection and medical intervention predict improved outcomes and prevent complications.
Survival rates are around 93% for those 18–64 years-old, 84% for those 65–84 years-old, and 70% for those over 85.
It is a viral infection that attacks the immune system, leaving the body susceptible to various infections and diseases. Early warning signs may include flu-like symptoms such as fever, fatigue, swollen lymph nodes, sore throat, rash, and night sweats.
Early detection by way of regular testing and commencement of antiretroviral therapy can significantly improve outcomes and extend life expectancy to that usually expected.
You don’t have to be a medical expert to increase your chances of surviving a serious disease. Just having awareness of the early warning signs can be enough to know when it wise to see a physician. It could make a huge difference to your chances of surviving and to the duration of your survival.
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Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the performance coaching practice PsyPerform.