How symptom masking can delay diagnosis and why body awareness and speaking up is so important.
Bodies change during pregnancy and post-nataly so it is not unusual for some early signs of cancer to be mistaken for these normal changes. This is called symptom masking and both patients and healthcare professionals are at risk of missing warning signs because of it.
For example, a pregnant mum feels unusually tired during their second pregnancy but assumes that, because they have a toddler to care for, this is normal and is too embarrassed to tell anyone. Later, they discover this was an early sign of thyroid cancer.
Another finds a lump in their breast a few weeks after giving birth and mentions it to their Health Visitor. Mum is clearly tired and overwhelmed so the Health Visitor, thinking it is likely just a blocked milk duct, encourages mum to treat it at home rather than making a (potentially exhausting) trip to the GP to have it checked out. Later, the lump is identified as a cancerous tumour.
In both scenarios, mum and health professional are responding from a place of compassion and care and doing what they think is best for the situation.
They are also seeing the pregnancy or post-natal body before the symptom, which can lead to unintentional bias and assumption.
Of course, many of these symptoms will turn our to be absolutely normal and it is important not to panic or cause not to alarm to a loved one or patient.
Promoting body awareness and having confidence in yourself and your loved ones to speak up about any concerns - no matter how trivial they may seem - is key.
You can help yourself, your partner, or a friend / loved one by:
· Being aware of the changes to your/their body and mood (when appropriate) and telling someone/them if you notice something unusual or unexpected.
· Listening carefully if mum has a concern and take it seriously
· Tell a healthcare professional as soon as possible. This doesn't just have to be a GP, it can also be a midwife, health visitor, even a sonographer or breastfeeding consultant!
and most importantly:
See the symptom!
Treat each symptom with the same seriousness you would if it occurred outside of pregnancy or the post natal period. This could lead to earlier detection and diagnosis; potentially improving treatment options and prognosis.