What Should I Know About Cancer?
Picture of cancer cell by BigStock/iStock
- In the U.S., cancer is the second most common cause of death after heart disease.
- A significant percentage of newly diagnosed cancers can be cured.
- Cancer is more curable when detected early. Although some cancers develop completely without symptoms, the disease can be particularly devastating if you ignore symptoms because you do not think that these symptoms might represent cancer.
- People with risk factors for cancer (for example, smokers, heavy alcohol use, high sun exposure, genetics) should be aware of potential cancer symptoms and be evaluated by a physician if any develop.
Introduction to Cancer Symptoms and Signs
Most cancer screening is specific to certain age groups and your primary care doctor will know what screening to perform depending on your age.
Cancer often has no specific symptoms, so it is important that people limit their risk factors and undergo appropriate cancer screening. Most cancer screening is specific to certain age groups and your primary care doctor will know what screening to perform depending on your age.
- People with risk factors for cancer (for example, smokers, heavy alcohol use, high sun exposure, genetics) should be acutely aware of potential cancer symptoms and be evaluated by a physician if any develop.
- The best way to fight cancers is by prevention (eliminating or decreasing risk factors) and early detection.
- Cancer treatment advances every year and combined with early detection have made many cancers treatable.
Consequently, individuals need to know which symptoms might point to cancer. People should not ignore a warning symptom that might lead to early diagnosis and possibly to a cure.
What Are 18 Signs and Symptoms of Cancer?
A persistent cough could be a symptom of lung cancer or head and neck cancer.
Cancer gives most people no symptoms or signs that exclusively indicate the disease. Unfortunately, every complaint or symptom of cancer can be explained by a harmless condition as well. Some cancers occur more frequently in certain age groups. If certain symptoms occur or persist, however, a doctor should be seen for further evaluation. Some common symptoms that may occur with cancer are as follows:
- Persistent cough or blood-tinged saliva
- These symptoms usually represent simple infections such as bronchitis or sinusitis.
- They could be symptoms of lung cancer or head and neck cancer. Anyone with a nagging cough that lasts more than a month or with blood in the mucus that is coughed up should see a doctor.
- A change in bowel habits
- Most changes in bowel habits are related to your diet and fluid intake.
- Doctors sometimes see pencil-thin stools with colon cancer.
- Occasionally, cancer exhibits continuous diarrhea.
- Some people with cancer feel as if they need to have a bowel movement and still feel that way after they have had a bowel movement. If any of these abnormal bowel complaints last more than a few days, they require evaluation.
- Any significant change in bowel habits that cannot be easily explained by dietary changes could be cancer-related and needs to be evaluated.
- Blood in the stool
- A doctor always should investigate blood in your stool.
- Hemorrhoids frequently cause rectal bleeding, but because hemorrhoids are so common, they may exist with cancer. Therefore, even when you have hemorrhoids, you should have a doctor examine your entire intestinal tract when you have blood in your bowel movements.
- With some individuals, X-ray studies may be enough to clarify a diagnosis.
- A colonoscopy is usually recommended. A routine colonoscopy, even without symptoms, is recommended once you are 50 years old.
- Sometimes when the source of bleeding is entirely clear (for example, recurrent ulcers), these studies may not be needed.
- Unexplained anemia (low blood count)
- Anemia is a condition in which people have fewer than the expected number of red blood cells in their blood. Anemia should always be investigated.
- There are many kinds of anemia, but blood loss almost always causes iron deficiency anemia. Unless there is an obvious source of ongoing blood loss, this anemia needs to be explained.
- Many cancers can cause anemia, but bowel cancers most commonly cause iron deficiency anemia. Evaluation should include endoscopy or X-ray studies of your upper and lower intestinal tracts.
- Breast lump or breast discharge
- Most breast lumps are noncancerous tumors such as fibroadenomas or cysts. But all breast lumps need to be thoroughly investigated for the possibility of breast cancer.
- A negative mammogram result is not usually sufficient to evaluate a breast lump. Your doctor needs to determine the appropriate X-ray study which might include an MRI or an ultrasound of the breast.
- Generally, diagnosis requires a needle aspiration or biopsy (a small tissue sample).
- Discharge from a breast is common, but some forms of discharge may be signs of cancer. If the discharge is bloody or from only one nipple, further evaluation is recommended.
- Women are advised to conduct monthly breast self-examinations.
- Lumps in the testicles
- Most men (90%) with cancer of the testicle have a painless or uncomfortable lump on the testicle.
- Some men have an enlarged testicle.
- Other conditions, such as infections and swollen veins, can also cause changes in your testicles, but any lump should be evaluated.
- Men are advised to conduct monthly testicular self-examinations.
- A change in urination
- Urinary symptoms can include frequent urination, small amounts of urine, and slow urine flow, or a general change in bladder function.
- These symptoms can be caused by urinary infections (usually in women) or, in men, by an enlarged prostate gland.
- Most men will suffer from harmless prostate enlargement as they age and will often have these urinary symptoms.
- These symptoms may also signal prostate cancer.
- Men experiencing urinary symptoms need further investigation, possibly including blood tests and a digital rectal exam. The PSA blood test, its indications, and interpretation of results should be discussed with your health care provider.
- If cancer is suspected, a biopsy of the prostate may be needed.
- Cancer of the bladder and pelvic tumors can also cause irritation of the bladder and urinary frequency.
More Cancer Signs and Symptoms
Many cancers can cause anemia, but bowel cancers most commonly cause iron deficiency anemia.
- Blood in the urine
- Hematuria or blood in the urine can be caused by a urinary infection, kidney stones, or other causes.
- The blood could be visible by the naked eye or might be found on a urine examination (microscopic hematuria).
- For some people, it is a symptom of cancer of the bladder or kidney.
- Any episode of blood in the urine should be investigated.
- Hoarseness not caused by a respiratory infection or that lasts longer than three to four weeks should be evaluated.
- Hoarseness can be caused by a simple allergy or by vocal cord polyps, but it could also be the first sign of cancer of the throat.
- Persistent lumps or swollen glands
- Lumps most frequently represent harmless conditions such as benign cysts. A doctor should examine any new lump or a lump that won't go away.
- Lumps may represent cancer or a swollen lymph gland related to cancer.
- Lymph nodes swell from infection and other causes and may take weeks to shrink again.
- A lump or gland that remains swollen for three to four weeks should be evaluated.
- Obvious change in a wart or a mole
- Multicolored moles that have irregular edges or bleed may be cancerous.
- Larger moles are more worrisome and need to be evaluated, especially if they seem to be enlarging.
- Removing a mole is usually simple. You should have your doctor evaluate any suspicious mole for removal. The doctor will send it for examination under a microscope for skin cancer.
- Indigestion or difficulty swallowing
- Most people with chronic heartburn usually do not have serious problems.
- People who suffer from chronic or lasting symptoms despite using over-the-counter antacids may need to have an upper GI endoscopy.
- A condition called Barrett esophagus, which can lead to cancer of the esophagus, can be treated with medication and then monitored by a doctor.
- Difficulty swallowing is a common problem, especially in elderly people, and has many causes.
- Swallowing problems need to be investigated because nutrition is always important.
- Difficulty swallowing solids can be seen with cancer of the esophagus.
- Unusual vaginal bleeding or discharge
- Unusual vaginal bleeding or bloody discharge may be an early sign of cancer of the uterus. Women should be evaluated when they have bleeding after intercourse or bleeding between periods.
- Bleeding that comes back, that lasts two or more days longer than expected, or that is heavier than usual also merits medical examination.
- Postmenopausal bleeding, unless expected on hormone therapy, is also worrisome and should be evaluated.
- Usually, the evaluation will include an endometrial biopsy, in which a doctor takes a small tissue sample from inside the uterus for testing.
- A Pap smear should be part of every woman's routine medical care.
- Unexpected weight loss, night sweats, or fever
- These nonspecific symptoms might be present with several different types of cancer. Pancreatic cancer can appear with weight loss and no specific pain.
- Various infections can lead to similar symptoms (for example, tuberculosis).
- Continued itching in the anal or genital area
- Precancerous or cancerous conditions of the skin of the genital or anal areas can cause persistent itching.
- Some cancers cause skin color changes.
- Several infections or skin conditions (for example, fungal infections or psoriasis) also can cause these symptoms. If itching does not stop with over-the-counter topical medications, your doctor should inspect the area.
- Nonhealing sores
- Sores generally heal quickly. If an area fails to heal, you may have cancer and should see a doctor.
- Nonhealing sores in your mouth or persistent white or red patches on your gums, tongue, or tonsils also should raise concerns.
- Some nonhealing sores may be due to poor circulation (for example, diabetic foot ulcers).
- Headaches have many causes (for example, migraines, and aneurysms) but cancer is not a common one.
- A severe unrelenting headache that feels different from usual can be a sign of cancer, but aneurysms may present in the same way.
- If your headache fails to improve with over-the-counter medications, see a doctor promptly.
- Back pain, pelvic pain, bloating, or indigestion
- These are common symptoms of daily life, often related to food intake, muscle spasms, or strains, but they also can be seen in ovarian cancer.
- Ovarian cancer is particularly difficult to treat because it is frequently diagnosed late in the course of the disease.
- The American Cancer Society and other organizations have been trying to make both patients and physicians more aware and consider this diagnosis if the classic symptoms are present.
Where Can People Find More Information About Cancer Symptoms and Signs?
American Cancer Society
1599 Clifton Road, NE
Atlanta, GA 30329
National Cancer Institute
NCI Public Inquiries Office
6116 Executive Boulevard
Bethesda, MD 20892-8322
275 7th Avenue
New York, NY, 10001
Reviewed on 11/16/2022
Abeloff, M.D., Armitage, J.O., Lichter, A.S. Clinical
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American Cancer Society. Cancer Resource Center. 2000.
National Cancer Institute. Cancer Information.
National Cancer Institute. CancerNet: A Service of the National Cancer Institute.