Signs and symptoms of cancer
Cancer signs and symptoms during the coronavirus pandemic
This page covers some of the key signs and symptoms of cancer, including those which can be early signs. Not every person with cancer has symptoms. But spotting cancer early saves lives, so tell your doctor if you notice anything that isn’t normal for you.
Keep reading below for more detailed information on the key cancer signs and symptoms. We have separate information on specific cancer types and their possible symptoms.
How do you know if you have cancer?
There are over 200 different types of cancer that can cause many different symptoms. Sometimes symptoms are linked to certain cancer types. But signs can also be more general, including weight loss, tiredness (fatigue) or unexplained pain.
You don’t need to try and remember all the signs and symptoms of cancer, but we have listed some key ones to give you an idea of the kind of things to be aware of. These symptoms are more often a sign of something far less serious - but if it is cancer, spotting it early can make a real difference.
Remember, anyone can develop cancer, but it’s more common as we get older. Most cases are in people aged 50 or over. Whatever your age, it’s always best to listen to your body and talk to your doctor if something doesn’t feel quite right. Whether it’s a change that’s new, unusual, or something that won’t go away – get it checked out.
Some possible signs of cancer – like a lump - are better known than others. But just because some symptoms are more well known, doesn’t mean they’re more important, or more likely to be cancer. If you spot anything that isn’t normal for you - don’t ignore it. Whether it’s on this list or not, get it checked out.
General cancer symptoms
Unexplained pain or ache
Pain is one way our bodies tell us that something is wrong. As we get older, it‘s more common to experience aches and pains. But unexplained pain could be a sign of something more serious.
Very heavy night sweats
Sweating at night can be caused by infections or it can be a side effect of certain medications. It’s also often experienced by women around the time of the menopause. But very heavy, drenching night sweats can also be a sign of cancer.
Unexplained weight loss
Small weight changes over time are quite normal, but if you lose a noticeable amount of weight without trying to, tell your doctor.
Unusual lump or swelling anywhere
Persistent lumps or swelling in any part of your body should be taken seriously. That includes any lumps in the neck, armpit, stomach, groin, chest, breast or testicle.
There are lots of reasons you may feel more tired than usual, particularly if you’re going through a stressful event, or having troubles sleeping. But if you’re feeling tired for no clear reason, it could be a sign that something is wrong - speak to your doctor.
Sore that won’t heal
The skin repairs itself very quickly and any damage usually heals within a week or so. When a spot, wart or sore doesn’t heal, even if it’s painless, a doctor needs to check it.
New mole or changes to a mole
Most moles are harmless. But be aware of any new moles or existing moles that change in size, shape or colour, become crusty, itch, hurt, bleed or ooze. The ABCDE checklist gives more details about the key changes you should always tell your doctor about.
Other skin changes
Any unusual change in a patch of skin or a nail, whether it’s a new change or has been there for a while, should be checked out by your doctor.
Symptoms that affect eating
Some medical conditions can make it difficult to swallow. Talk to your doctor if you are having difficulty swallowing and the problem doesn’t go away.
Unusual heartburn or indigestion
It is normal to feel slight discomfort or pain sometimes after eating a large, fatty or spicy meal. But if you have heartburn (acid reflux) or indigestion a lot, or if it is particularly painful, then you should see your doctor.
Appetite loss can happen for many different reasons. Speak to your doctor if you’ve noticed you’re not as hungry as usual and it’s not getting any better.
Symptoms that affect your voice and breathing
Croaky voice or hoarseness
Having a croaky voice or feeling hoarse can be common with colds. But a croaky voice that hasn’t gone away on its own should be checked out.
Coughs are common with colds and some other health conditions. But if an unexplained cough doesn’t go away in a few weeks or gets worse, it could be a sign of cancer.
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 a lot of the time, tell your doctor.
Changes in your poo or pee
Let your doctor know if you’ve noticed a change in your bowel habits, have problems peeing, or if there’s blood in your pee or poo. A change in bowel habits can include constipation, looser poo or pooing more often. Problems peeing might be needing to go more often or urgently, experiencing pain when peeing, or not being able to go when you need to.
These symptoms can all be caused by conditions other than cancer, but it’s best to get them checked out.
Unexplained bleeding or blood
Unexplained bleeding can often be caused by something far less serious than cancer, but you should always report it to your doctor.
This includes blood in your poo or pee, and vomiting or coughing up blood - no matter how much or what colour (it could be red, or a darker colour like brown or black). It also includes any unexplained vaginal bleeding between periods, after sex or after the menopause.
Mouth ulcer or patch that won’t heal
It’s common to get ulcers (small sores) in the mouth when you’re a bit run down – they usually get better in about two weeks. But an ulcer or red or white patch that doesn’t heal after 3 weeks should be reported to your doctor or dentist.
It’s quite common to experience a bloated or swollen tummy that comes and goes from time to time. But if you feel bloated most days, even if it comes and goes, talk to your doctor.
Unusual breast changes
Lumps are not the only breast changes to tell the doctor about. Also look out for any change in the size, shape or feel of a breast, or any skin changes, redness, or pain in the breast. And don’t forget any nipple changes, including fluid, which could be blood stained, leaking from the nipple if you’re not pregnant or breastfeeding.
Breast cancer is most common in women, but whatever your gender it’s important to tell your doctor about any unusual breast changes – find out more on our breast cancer symptoms page.