Pink for breast, blue for colon, white for lung.
There’s so much awareness of cancer that most of us can identify different types by ribbon color alone. And still, there are many more forms of cancer than the ones we usually hear about. In fact, a 10-year study of more than 9 million cancer cases found that 60 of 71 types of cancer are rare, yet account for 25% of all cancers. Here are five that you’ve probably never heard of.
“Nobody ever associates the foot with cancer, but that’s a big mistake,” says Bryan Markinson, DPM, chief of podiatric medicine and surgery at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. Since cancers of the foot are uncommon, they often go unnoticed. Markinson stresses the importance of mentioning any moles, strange sensations, dullness, or pain in your feet to a podiatrist because those symptoms could potentially signal bone, vascular, nerve, or skin cancer. Skin cancer is the most common type of foot cancer, but it’s still rare—your typical podiatrist may see 10 cases in a year, says Markinson. Melanoma of the foot accounts for 3 to 5% of all melanoma cases, with many cases due to genetics or environmental carcinogens rather than sun exposure. “If you have a melanoma under the toenail, it has a molecular genetic structure entirely different from a melanoma caused by sun exposure,” says Markinson.
As we age, the cells in the vagina change and are more likely to become cancerous. That said, this type of cancer is still rare—only about 1% of the time does a cancer of the female reproductive system start in the vagina. By far the most common type is squamous cell carcinoma, a type of skin cancer that accounts for 80% of the cases of vaginal cancer, which develops slowly near the cervix and appears most often after menopause. The tumors look like small lumps or sores and are usually curable by surgery. Much less common is adenocarcinoma, and very rarely does sarcoma or melanoma develop in the vagina.
Caught early, most cancers of this type stay localized and can be surgically removed. Radiation therapy is increasingly common for vaginal cancers and has been shown to increase survival rates, according to a study in Gynecological Oncology.
A history of genital warts (human papillomavirus) will increase your risk for this type of cancer. If you notice any unusual irritation, bleeding, or discharge, talk to your gynecologist about getting a cancer screening.
Salivary Gland Cancer
The enzymes produced by the salivary glands play a vital role in helping to digest food and ward off infection. In rare cases—fewer than one in 100,000 people—cancer develops in the salivary glands. Symptoms include numbness or weakness in the face, or a lump in the ear, cheek, jaw, or mouth area. If it’s caught early, salivary gland cancer has a 5-year survival rate of more than 90%. However, that number drops precipitously if it’s caught late. While it’s often treated by radiation and surgery, a large Dutch study in Cancer Epidemiology examined 21 years of data and found no improvement in survival from those two treatments, and suggests an ideal treatment is still on the horizon.
Salivary gland cancer differs from other cancers of and around the mouth in that alcohol and tobacco use don’t seem to increase risk, and it’s not brought on by an inherited genetic predisposition. It does occur more often in men than in women, and it’s more commonly seen in people who have a history of workplace exposure to radioactive substances.
Chordoma is a type of bone cancer found in the skull and spine, diagnosed in one in a million people per year. Chordomas grow from miniscule remnants of cartilage left from when we were in utero. Since it’s so rare, it’s very difficult to study what causes chordoma cancer, but experts do know that it’s not genetic.
Chordomas grow slowly but aggressively. They often lead to headaches, neck pain, double vision, loss of bowel and bladder function, and tingling in the arms and legs. The tumors tend not to respond well to chemotherapy, radiation, or drugs. Surgery is the usual course, but it’s a dicey proposition because the tumors grow on the spine and around vital nerves. Because it’s so difficult to remove an entire chordoma tumor, the cancer has a high recurrence rate.
This cancer of the cartilage is so rare that there have been fewer than 1,000 cases reported in the medical literature since 1959. It’s aggressive and quickly spreads to organs and lymph nodes, making it very dangerous if it isn’t caught early. Two-thirds of mesenchymal chondrosarcoma cases occur in the bones, especially the spine, ribs, and jaw. The other third is found in fat and muscle. Since it may appear anywhere in the body, it’s hard to pinpoint symptoms, but in the early stages, the cancerous tumors may cause pain and swelling in the affected area. If the cancer occurs near the spine, it may cause paralysis or loss of feeling.
The best course of action seems to be surgery to remove the tumor plus chemotherapy, according to a study in the European Journal of Cancer. The combination of treatments cuts the risk of recurrence in half, whereas surgery alone reduces it by 27%.