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Key signs and symptoms

On this page, you can find out about some of the possible signs and symptoms of cancer. If you develop one of these symptoms, it doesn’t definitely mean you’ve got cancer - usually, they turn out to be something much less serious. But it’s important to get it checked out.

If you notice any of the symptoms on this page, make an appointment to see your doctor. Experts and doctors agree that these symptoms are the most important ones to look out for and they will be keen to see you if you have noticed any of them. Use our tool to find out about the possible warning signs and symptoms of cancer.

You can find out more about seeing your doctor and get tips about talking to them about your symptoms on our getting help page.

Signs of cancer for men and women:

 

Signs of cancer for women:

 

Signs of cancer for men and women:

 An unusual lump or swelling anywhere on your body

Many men know that any unusual lump in their testicle should be checked out. And women are generally aware that they should see a doctor about an unusual breast lump.

But persistent lumps or swellings in other parts of the body should also be taken seriously. This includes lumps and swellings in your neck, armpit, abdomen, groin or chest area.

If these symptoms last for three weeks or more, it’s important to get them checked out. A good time to notice unusual lumps and bumps is in the bath or shower.

A change in size, shape or colour of a mole

Most moles remain harmless throughout our lives. But new moles that appear, ones that change in size, shape or colour over weeks or months, or ones that are crusty, bleed or ooze, should be checked out by a doctor.

It’s important to keep an eye on your skin and look out for changes - ask your partner or a friend to check areas you can’t see, such as your back. This is particularly important if you have fair, freckly or moley skin that tends to burn easily, or if you have a personal or family history of skin cancer.

A sore that won’t heal after several weeks

Our skin repairs itself very quickly, and any damage usually heals within a week or so. When a spot, wart or sore doesn’t heal and lasts for several weeks, it needs checking out and could need treatment. Even if it is painless, you should see your doctor.

A mouth or tongue ulcer that lasts longer than three weeks

Many people get mouth ulcers when they are run down and this is usually nothing to worry about. The lining of the mouth renews itself every two weeks or so, which is why ulcers usually don’t last longer than that. But any single ulcer that lasts longer than three weeks without healing should be reported to your doctor or dentist.

A cough or croaky voice that lasts longer than three weeks

A cough and croaky voice are common symptoms of a cold. They often go away after a week or so and usually aren’t signs of anything serious. But if they last for longer than three weeks, if you cough up blood, or if an existing cough changes or gets worse, you should go to your doctor. This is particularly important if you smoke or have ever smoked as you are more likely to suffer from throat and lung diseases.

Persistent difficulty swallowing or indigestion

A number of medical conditions can make it difficult to swallow. But if you are having difficulty swallowing and the problem doesn’t go away after a couple of weeks, it should be checked out.

It is normal to feel slight discomfort or pain sometimes after eating a large, fatty or spicy meal. But if you are experiencing indigestion a lot, or if it is particularly painful, then you should see your doctor.

Problems passing urine

As men get older they often have problems passing urine. They may find they need to pass urine urgently or more often, are unable to go when they need to, or experience pain when they do. These symptoms are usually caused by a common medical condition that causes the prostate gland to enlarge. Less commonly, these symptoms can be caused by prostate cancer. If you’re having any of these problems, you should see your doctor.

For women, infections are the most common cause of pain and difficulty passing urine. But needing to pass urine urgently or more often than usual should be checked out.

Blood in your urine

Blood in your urine should always be reported to a doctor. Usually it isn’t caused by cancer and can be treated quickly and easily. But it could be a sign of something more serious. Either way, the best thing to do is to go to your doctor.

Blood in your bowel motions

The most common cause of blood in the bowel motions is piles. This condition is brought on by straining when going to the toilet. But blood in your bowel movements can be a symptom of a more serious condition such as bowel cancer, so it’s very important to get it checked out.

A change to more frequent bowel motions that lasts longer than four to six weeks

Stomach bugs and food poisoning are the most usual causes of loose, frequent bowel motions, or diarrhoea. This doesn’t usually last long, clearing up within a few days. If you have noticed a change in your bowel habits lasting longer than four to six weeks, it could be a more serious bowel problem.

Most cases of bowel cancer are in older people, with more than nine out of ten cases in people over 50. If you’re younger, bowel changes are likely to be caused by other medical conditions. But if you have noticed any lasting bowel changes, you should see your doctor.

Unexplained weight loss or heavy night sweats

Small weight changes over time are quite normal. But if you have noticeably lost weight without dieting, this should be checked out by your doctor.

Heavy night sweats can be brought on by infections and certain medications in both men and women. They are also often experienced by women around the time of the menopause. But heavy night sweats can also be caused by certain types of cancer, and you should see your doctor.

An unexplained pain or ache that lasts longer than four weeks

Pain is one way our bodies tell us that something is wrong. As we get older, many of us have aches and pains. In general, if you experience any continuous unexplained pain, or any unexplained pain that comes and goes over a period longer than four weeks, you should make an appointment to see your doctor.

It’s not unusual to feel out of breath every now and then. But if you notice that you’re feeling breathless more than usual or for much of the time, make an appointment to see your doctor because it could be a sign of lung cancer.

People often put breathlessness down to getting older. But if you or anyone else has noticed that you’re more out of breath than usual, do get yourself checked out. Chances are it’s nothing to worry about, but if it’s a sign of lung cancer or something else, knowing what it is and how to treat it can make all the difference. Even if you already have something wrong with your lungs that makes breathing more difficult, such as COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder), tell your doctor or nurse if you find you’re more out of breath than usual.

Coughing up blood

If you’ve coughed up blood, no matter how much or what colour, make an appointment to see your doctor. It may be nothing to worry about but it could be a sign of lung cancer.

Many people think they would see their doctor if they noticed something as serious as coughing up blood but the truth is that people don’t always. Perhaps they don’t think they’ve coughed up enough for it to be anything to worry about, or they’re worried about what the doctor might find. In any case, any coughing up of blood, no matter how much or what colour, should be checked out. If it’s nothing, your doctor will be able to reassure you. But if it’s something, finding out what it is and getting treatment started can be really important.

Signs of cancer for women:

An unusual breast change

Lumps are not the only changes to the breast that should be reported to a doctor. Also look out for any change in the size, shape or feel of a breast, a change to the skin texture, redness, a nipple change or pain in one breast.

Bleeding from the vagina after the menopause or between periods

Bleeding between periods, or ‘spotting’ as it is sometimes known, is a fairly common side effect of the contraceptive pill. But bleeding from the vagina between periods, after sex or after the menopause should be checked out.

Persistent bloating 

Many women experience a bloating of their abdomen which comes and goes. But if you notice persistent bloating, make an appointment to see your doctor because it could be a sign of ovarian cancer.

 

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Question about cancer? Contact our information nurse team
Updated: 25 September 2009