What Are the First Signs of Cancer?

Reviewed on 5/10/2021
first signs of cancer
First signs of cancer are specific and vary according to the affected organ

Most cancers do not present with signs and symptoms in earlier stages, and they are often nonspecific. Signs and symptoms tend to appear in the advanced stages of the disease, when it is harder to treat.

Advanced cancers (except for blood cancer and skin cancer) often present with similar symptoms. Generally, the first sign of cancer may be a lump that is hard, irregular in shape and fixed (immobile). The lump is usually painless and either doesn’t go away or keeps growing. As cancer the progresses, the following symptoms may appear:

Other first signs of cancer are specific and vary according to the affected organ.

First signs of specific cancers chart
Cancer First signs
Bladder cancer
  • Blood in the urine (painless hematuria)
Breast cancer
  • Swelling of or a lump in the breast
  • Dimpling of the nipple
Cervical cancer
  • Pain during sex
  • Bleeding after intercourse or vaginal examination
  • Menstrual periods that are heavier than usual
Colorectal cancer
  • Change in bowel habits
  • Blood in the stool
Esophageal cancer
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Burning sensation in the chest
Endometrial cancer or uterine cancer
  • Abnormal menstrual bleeding
    • Vaginal bleeding after menopause
    • Bleeding between periods
Kidney cancer
  • Persistent lower back pain or discomfort on one side
  • Swelling of the legs and ankles
Leukemia
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Fatigue
  • Low red blood cell count
Liver cancer
  • Pain in the right upper side of the abdomen or near the right shoulder blade
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes)
Lung cancer
  • Persistent cough that does not go away even after four weeks of treatment
  • Shortness of breath
Melanoma (skin cancer)
  • A new spot on the skin or a spot that is changing in size, shape or color
Pancreatic cancer
  • Pain in the upper abdomen that usually radiates to the back
  • Digestive problems (nausea, vomiting, abnormal stools)
Prostate cancer
  • Pain/burning during urination or ejaculation
  • Frequent trips to the bathroom, particularly at night
Thyroid cancer
  • Hoarseness of voice
  • Persistent cough
Throat cancer
  • Cough
  • Hoarseness of voice or change in voice
  • Difficulty swallowing

How Is Cancer Diagnosed?

These symptoms don’t always mean cancer. Many times, these symptoms appear due to noncancerous conditions. 

Before arriving at the diagnosis of cancer, your doctor will order certain tests and rule out all other causes. These tests include:

  • Blood tests: Includes blood count, tumor marker test, liver function test, kidney function test.
  • X-ray chest: Looks for any signs that point toward lung cancer.
  • Ultrasound: Involves moving a probe on a specific area, such as the abdomen, and using sound waves to capture images of the organs.
  • Computed tomography (CT) scan: Uses multiple X-rays (radiation) to provide detailed images of the organs.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): Provides detailed pictures of the organs using magnetic waves.
  • Biopsy: Surgical procedure to remove a sample of suspicious cells for testing. This test is usually necessary to make a definitive diagnosis of cancer.

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Reviewed on 5/10/2021
References
American Cancer Society. Signs and Symptoms of Cancer. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-basics/signs-and-symptoms-of-cancer.html