Signs and symptoms of cancer

  • Spotting cancer at an early stage saves lives, so tell your doctor if you notice anything that isn’t normal for you.

  • You don’t need to try and remember all the signs and symptoms of cancer – listen to your body and talk to your doctor if you notice anything that isn’t normal for you.

  • Signs and symptoms are more often caused by something less serious than cancer - but if it is cancer, spotting it early can make a real difference.

This page covers some of the key signs and symptoms of cancer, which could help you spot cancer early. We have separate cancer type webpages if you are looking for information about symptoms of a specific cancer type.

 

What are the signs and symptoms of cancer?

There are over 200 different types of cancer that can cause many different signs and symptoms. Sometimes symptoms affect specific areas of the body, such as our tummy or skin. But signs can also be more general, and include weight loss, tiredness (fatigue) or unexplained pain. 

Some possible signs of cancer, like a lump, are better known than others. But this doesn’t mean they’re more important or more likely to be cancer. It is important to get any possible symptom of cancer checked out.

Cancer can affect people in different ways. The type of symptoms a person may have can be different to others, and some people don’t have any symptoms. So, you don’t need to remember all the signs and symptoms of cancer.

It’s important to be aware of what is normal for you and speak to your doctor if you notice any unusual changes or something that won’t go away. This can help to diagnose cancer at an early stage, when treatment is more likely to be successful.

 

What signs of cancer can I look out for?

We have listed some key signs and symptoms you can be aware of. Most signs and symptoms listed here are caused by something less serious than cancer - but if it is cancer, spotting it early can make a real difference. If you notice any changes that are not normal for you, or something that won’t go away - don’t ignore it, speak to your doctor. Whether it’s on this list or not, get it checked out. You can find advice on talking to your doctor here.

 

 

General cancer symptoms:

Very heavy night sweats or fever

Sweating at night or having a high temperature (fever) can be caused by infections or a side effect of certain medications. It’s also often experienced by women around the time of the menopause. But speak to your doctor if you have very heavy, drenching night sweats, or an unexplained fever.

Fatigue

There are lots of reasons why you may feel more tired than usual, particularly if you’re going through a stressful event, or having trouble sleeping. But if you’re feeling tired all the time, or, for no clear reason, it could be a sign that something is wrong - speak to your doctor.

Unexplained bleeding or bruising

Unexplained bleeding or bruising when you have not hurt yourself is important to get checked out by your doctor. This includes blood in your poo or pee, as well as vomiting or coughing up blood. It also includes any unexplained vaginal bleeding between periods, after sex or after the menopause.  No matter how much blood or what colour it is (blood can be red, or a darker colour like brown or black), speak to your doctor.

Unexplained pain or ache

Pain is one way our body tells us that something is wrong. As we get older, it’s more common to experience aches and pains. But unexplained or persistent pain anywhere in the body could be a sign of something more serious.

Unexplained weight loss

Small weight changes over time are quite normal, but if you have lost 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. This includes any lumps in the neck, armpit, stomach, groin, chest, breast, or testicle.

 

Cancer symptoms in specific areas of the body:

Difficulty swallowing

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.

Mouth or tongue 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 you should report an ulcer or red or white patch that doesn’t heal after 3 weeks to your doctor or dentist.

Persistent bloating 

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.

Persistent 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

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.

Croaky voice or hoarseness

Having a croaky voice or feeling hoarse can be common with colds. But a croaky or hoarse voice that hasn’t gone away should be checked out.

Breathlessness

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.

Persistent cough

Coughs are common with colds and some other health conditions. But if a cough doesn’t go away in a few weeks or gets worse, it could be a sign of cancer.

Symptoms of lung cancer can include a cough that won't go away and breathlessness. Find out more on our lung cancer symptoms page.

Problems peeing

Problems peeing might include needing to go more often or urgently, experiencing pain when peeing, or not being able to go when you need to.

Bowel changes

Let your doctor know if you’ve noticed a change in your bowel habits. A change in bowel habits can include constipation, looser poo or pooing more often.

Blood in poo or pee

Speak to your doctor if you notice blood in your poo or pee, on the toilet paper or in the toilet.

Blood in your poo or a change in bowel habits can be a sign of bowel cancer. Find out more on our bowel cancer symptoms page.

Sore that does not 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.

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.

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 in a mole that you should tell your doctor about.

Find out more on our skin cancer symptoms page.

Unusual breast or chest changes

Look out for any change in the size, shape or feel of your breast or chest, or any skin changes, redness, or pain in the breast.

Nipple changes

Nipple changes include changes to the look, position, or feel of a nipple, or fluid leaking from the nipple (discharge) if you’re not pregnant or breastfeeding. This fluid could also be blood stained.

Breast cancer is most common in women, but all people can get it. The first symptom of breast cancer most people notice is a lump in their breast or some thickening. Find out more on our breast cancer symptoms page.

Who does cancer affect?

Anyone can develop cancer at any age. But cancer is more common as we get older, and most cases are in people aged 50 or over.

It’s important not to put any unusual changes, aches or pains down to ‘just getting older’ or assume a symptom is because of a health condition you already know about.

Whatever your age, it’s always best to listen to your body and talk to your doctor if something is not normal for you.

What are cancer screening programmes?

Sometimes, it’s possible to find cancer before you have symptoms. Cancer screening programmes are designed for people without symptoms. Screening can detect cancers at an early stage, or in some cases, prevent cancers from developing in the first place. You can find out more about cancer screening programmes in the UK and who is eligible for screening on our cancer screening pages.

But remember, even if you have recently completed a screening test or are due one, it’s still important to contact your doctor if you notice changes that are not normal for you. 

Cancer survival in England: adult, stage at diagnosis and childhood - patients followed up to 2018. Office for National Statistics. 2019. Available from: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/conditionsanddiseases/bulletins/cancersurvivalinengland/stageatdiagnosisandchildhoodpatientsfollowedupto2018.

Koo MM, Swann R, McPhail S, Abel GA, Elliss-Brookes L, Rubin GP, et al. Presenting symptoms of cancer and stage at diagnosis: evidence from a cross-sectional, population-based study. The Lancet Oncology. 2020;21(1):73-9. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31704137/

Suspected cancer: recognition and referral | Guidance and guidelines. NICE. Available from: https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/ng12/chapter/Recommendations-organised-by-symptom-and-findings-of-primary-care-investigations.

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