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Possible symptoms of cancer

Nurse and patients talking about cancer

This page tells you about possible symptoms of cancer. There is information below about

 

What's on this page

We list some of the more common symptoms of cancer below and try to tell you what to look out for. But there are over 200 different types of cancer and it isn’t possible to list all the symptoms that could be caused by every one of them. Symptoms can also vary between people. This may be because of where it is in the body, or because it is pressing on nearby areas or nerves.

If you have a  symptom that we haven’t included here and it hasn’t gone away after a few weeks, go to see your GP.

 

Particular symptoms to look out for

The following symptoms can be caused by cancer, but they can also be caused by many less serious illnesses. There is information below about

A lump somewhere on your body

If you find a lump anywhere on your body that is not normal for you, go to your GP. It could be a sign of cancer. Which type of cancer depends on where the lump is.

Most breast and testicular cancers are found either by the person with the cancer or their partner. It is important to know how your body feels and looks so you quickly notice any changes. Get into the habit of feeling your breasts or testicles. Notice how the skin looks and feels. Get familiar with the shape and any lumpiness that is normal for you. If you notice anything unusual, go to your GP. There is information about breast awareness and testicular awareness in the breast cancer and testicular cancer sections.

A lump in your neck, groin or under your arm could be an enlarged lymph gland. This can also be a sign of cancer. Or it could be an untreated infection. Either way, you need to see your GP. 

It is important to get any lumps checked as soon as you notice them. But it is worth remembering that many lumps are caused by other things and not cancer.

Changes in a mole on your skin

You should see a GP if you notice any changes to a mole such as

  • Bleeding
  • Itching
  • Increase in size
  • Change in shape or colour

If you have a lot of moles, or moles in places that are difficult for you to see, ask a family member or friend to help you examine them. They will need to become familiar with where your moles are and what they look like.

You may be at higher risk of melanoma if you have a family history of melanoma and more than 50 to 100 moles. You can ask your GP to refer you to a skin specialist or pigmented lesion clinic. The doctor or specialist nurse can examine your moles regularly. Any changes can then be picked up quickly.

A cough or hoarseness that won't go away

If you have a cough for more than 3 weeks, get it checked by your GP. It will probably just be inflammation or infection. But if it is cancer, the earlier you find out, the more likely you are to have a good outcome from treatment. If you cough up blood, see your GP as soon as possible.

There is more about the symptoms of lung cancer in the lung cancer section.

A hoarse voice that lasts more than 3 weeks or keeps coming back could be a sign of cancer of the larynx (voice box). It may just be inflammation of the larynx (laryngitis), but you should get it checked.

A change in bowel habits

It is important to know what is normal for you - for example, how often you usually have a bowel motion and whether it is loose or firm. See your GP if you have any of the following changes for more than 3 weeks

  • Bleeding from the bottom for no obvious reason
  • Tummy pain, especially if it is severe
  • A lump in your tummy
  • You have difficulty passing stools (bowel motions)
  • You want to strain often
  • You have looser or more frequent stools (bowel motions)

These symptoms are often caused by conditions other than cancer, but it is best to check.

See your GP as soon as possible if your stools are black, like tar. This can be a sign of bleeding into the bowel.

Difficulty in swallowing or persistent indigestion

As well as difficulty in swallowing, you may have a burning sensation when you swallow or may feel that food is sticking in your throat. This may be due to a harmless narrowing, called a stricture. But it could be a cancer blocking the food pipe (oesophagus). Either way, you should see your GP for a check up.

Indigestion is a very common problem and is not usually caused by cancer. It can be very painful, even when there isn’t anything serious wrong. But it can also be a sign of stomach cancer. Get a check up from your GP if

  • You get indigestion a lot
  • It is particularly painful
  • It has come on suddenly

Any abnormal bleeding

Unusual bleeding may not be caused by cancer, but it is a sign that something is wrong and should be checked. There is information below on

Bleeding from the back passage (bottom)

If you have bleeding from the back passage, it is most likely to be due to piles (haemorrhoids), but it could be a sign of cancer.

Abnormal vaginal bleeding

Vaginal bleeding between periods, after sex or at any time if you are past your menopause, could be a sign of cancer of the cervix or womb. It can also be a symptom of vaginal cancer (although this is quite rare). There are many other more likely causes of bleeding, but it is best to see your GP to rule cancer out.

Blood in your urine

Blood in the urine could be a sign of infection. But it could be a sign of bladder or kidney cancer and so should be checked by your GP. If you have bright red blood in your urine, and you do not have an infection, your doctor should send you to a specialist in bladder diseases (a urologist). Be aware, though, that pink or red urine can be caused by colouring in medicines or foods, such as beetroot or blackberries. If you can rule those out as a possible cause, then go to your GP.

Vomiting blood

If you vomit and notice blood tell your GP straight away. It is most likely to be from a bleeding stomach ulcer or from irritation to the stomach lining. But it could also be due to stomach cancer. Any of these need checking by a doctor.

Nosebleeds

Frequent nosebleeds are unlikely to be caused by cancer. But very rarely, this could be a sign of leukaemia. However, if it was leukaemia, you would usually have other symptoms too.

A sore or ulcer that won’t heal

The skin is very good at repairing itself and injuries usually heal within a week or so. Infection is the most likely cause of any sore that isn’t healing. But a sore area or ulcer

  • In the mouth or on the tongue
  • On the genitals (penis or vulva)
  • On the skin, particularly areas that have been exposed to a lot of sun

can also be a sign of cancer. If you have a sore or ulcer that hasn’t healed after a few weeks, wherever it is on the body, go to your GP to have it checked.

Difficulty passing urine

If you have difficulty passing urine, go to your GP. This is a common problem in men as they get older. The cause is usually the prostate gland enlarging and squashing the tube that the urine goes through. The enlargement may be a harmless (benign) growth of the prostate. But in some men, it is due to prostate cancer. If you have symptoms, your GP can do a blood test that may help to show whether there is anything to worry about. There is more information about this blood test, called a PSA test, in the prostate cancer section.

Remember - infections can also make it difficult to pass urine.

Unexplained weight loss

If you suddenly lose a lot of weight in a short time and are not dieting, get a check up from your GP. A lot of weight means roughly 5kg or 10lbs over a couple of months (but this also depends on your normal height and weight).

Unexplained pain

Pain can be an early sign of some cancers including bone cancers. But it can also be a symptom of less serious problems such as a pulled muscle. Muscle and joint pains usually gradually get better with time but can take several weeks to go completely. We all get aches and pains especially as we get older. It can be difficult to know whether a pain or ache is something serious or not. Get a check up from your GP if you have a pain or ache that you can’t explain, isn’t getting better and lasts for several weeks.

Feeling very tired all the time (fatigue)

We all get tired at times, but fatigue is extreme tiredness and a severe lack of energy. If your fatigue is due to cancer, you would normally also have other symptoms.

Skin changes

Skin cancers are not the only type of cancer that can affect the skin. Some cancers inside the body can also affect the skin. Depending on the type of cancer, the skin may

  • Become yellow (jaundiced)
  • Be itchy
  • Get redder
  • Feel and look different

If you have any of these symptoms go to see your GP.

Nipple changes

If you have

  • Nipple discharge (particularly if it's blood stained)
  • Changes in the position of your nipple
  • A rash on or around your nipple

you should go to see your GP. All these symptoms can be caused by different reasons, but could be a sign of breast cancer so it is important to get checked. There is more information about the symptoms of breast cancer in the breast cancer section.

Unexplained night sweats

If you suddenly start having heavy, unexplained sweats in the night, see your GP for a check up. Night sweats can be a symptom of some cancers, for example lymphomas. But it may well be due to something else. Many different conditions cause night sweats such as infections, diabetes and the menopause in women. Sweats can also be a side effect of some drugs.

Breathlessness

Breathlessness can be caused by many different medical conditions, such as infections or low levels of red blood cells. It can also be a symptom of some cancers, such as lung cancer, or blood cancers such as leukaemia that cause low levels of red blood cells.

Remember - in most cases, these symptoms will turn out to be something other than cancer. But they are all signs of illness and you won't be wasting your GP's time getting them checked out. And the sooner the better. It is better to go for a check up than keep worrying.

 

Worrying about symptoms and seeing your GP

It is perfectly normal to worry about your health. Noticing changes in your body, and how it works, is part of taking responsibility for yourself. But some people find they worry about bothering their doctor more than they do about their health. Do remember that your GP is there to help you. If you are worried, they will want to know. For one thing, they may be able to put your mind at rest. There is no point in worrying unnecessarily if there is a simple, treatable cause for your symptom.

If a symptom is caused by something serious, your GP will want you to tell them about it. The earlier a cancer is picked up, the easier it is to treat it and the more likely treatment is to be successful. So do go to your GP as soon as possible if you notice worrying symptoms.

Remember - many symptoms can just as easily be symptoms of other illnesses or conditions that are much more common, and often less serious, than cancer. Be aware of what is normal for your body and look out for any changes. If you have a symptom that worries you or that is unusual for you, go to your GP for a check up.

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Updated: 21 February 2013