Early Warning Signs of Cancer You Need to Know About

A comprehensive guide to a variety of cancers and their symptoms

Woman with cancer wearing scarf. Credit: Holly Anissa Photography / Getty Images

If cancer runs in your family, wanting to be proactive is understandable. While knowing the early warning signs of cancer can help prevent cancer from further developing or spreading, it's also important to know that almost all of the signs of cancer can also be explained by other conditions, infections, or external factors.

Different Cancers and Their Symptoms

There are as many different possible warning signs, as there are different types of cancers.

If you are experiencing any of the following symptoms, you should consult your physician as soon as possible. 

  • Bladder and Kidney Cancer: You may see blood in your urine, have pain or burning, or increased urination. Other possible conditions caused by these symptoms include urinary tract infection and interstitial cystitis. 
  • Breast Cancer: Lump or thickening of lumps, itching, redness or soreness of the nipples which isn't caused by pregnancy, breast feeding, or menstruation. It's important to note that not all lumps are cancerous. 
  • Cervical, Endometrial, and Uterine Cancer: Bleeding between menstrual cycles, any unusual discharge, painful menstruation, and heavy periods. These symptoms can also be caused by endometriosis or uterine fibroids. 
  • Colon Cancer: Rectal bleeding, blood in your stool or changes in bowel habits such as persistent diarrhea and or constipation are warning signs which should be investigated promptly. These symptoms could also be the result of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). 
  • Laryngeal Cancer: A persistent cough or hoarse-sounding voice are possible signs you may experience. Vocal changes can also be caused by polyps or hypothyroidism. 
  • Leukemia: Paleness, fatigue, weight loss, repeated infections, nosebleeds, bone or joint pain, and easy bruising are possible warning signs of Leukemia.
  • Lung Cancer: A persistent coughsputum with blood, a heavy feeling in the chest, or chest pain can indicate lung cancer. It may also indicate pneumonia. 
  • Lymphoma: Enlarged, rubbery lymph nodes, itchy skin, night sweats, unexplained fever and weight loss can be signs of Lymphoma.
  • Mouth and Throat Cancer: Any chronic ulcer (sore) of the mouth, tongue or throat which doesn't heal, or white areas in the mouth should be seen by your physician. White spots and sores can also be canker sores which can be caused by a weak immune system, stress, oral trauma, or IBD. 
  • Ovarian Cancer: Unfortunately there are often no symptoms until it's in the later stages of development. When it does present symptoms, these can include weight loss, fatigue, bloating, and abdominal pain. 
  • Pancreatic Cancer: There usually are no symptoms until this cancer has progressed to the later stages when you may notice jaundiced skin or pain deep in the stomach or back.
  • Skin Cancer: This type of cancer typically presents with moles that change color, size, or appearance, or flat sores (lesions that look like moles), a tumor or lump under the skin that resembles a wart or an ulceration that never heals.
  • Stomach Cancer: Vomiting blood or experiencing frequent indigestion and pain after eating, or weight loss. These can also be signs of a stomach ulcer. 

Cancer Prevention Tips

If cancer runs in your family or you have a condition that makes you more likely to develop a certain type of cancer, then it's important to be mindful of your risk factors. Being proactive and making healthy life choices can help you lower your risk of developing cancer. Some steps you can take include: 

  • Exercise regularly: Minimum 30 minutes per day. Research has shown that moderate regular exercise can reduce your cancer risk by at least 30 percent.
  • Eat a healthy well-balanced diet: this should a low-sugar, high-fiber diet with little or no red meat, and lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. You can have fats, just make sure that are the healthy kinds. 
  • Quit smoking: Cigarette smoke can increase your cancer risk by 30 percent.
  • Limit your use of alcohol: Moderate drinking is ok. One drink a day has been found to reduce some health risks, including significantly reducing the risk of heart disease. However, too much alcohol may increase your risk of breast cancer.
  • Don't smoke and drink: Smoking combined with alcohol has proven to significantly increase cancer risks for oral cancer, esophageal cancer, and other cancers.
  • Maintain regular gynecological examinations: This includes Pap smears and mammograms. The Pap smear is the only screening tool for cancer which has reduced the number of deaths from any type of cancer. Mammograms should begin usually between the age of 35 to 40 for a baseline mammogram. A baseline mammogram establishes a pattern for comparison with future mammograms.
  • Perform monthly breast self-exams: Catching a lump early can improve your odds of catching cancer in its early, less deadly stages. 
  • Use sunscreen: Use an SPF of 15 or higher anytime you're outdoors and avoid being outdoors during the middle of the day.
  • Practice Safe Sex: Always use a condom unless you are in a long- term monogamous relationship!

Women can significantly reduce their risk of cervical cancer by seeing their gynecologists regularly for Pap smears and physical examinations. Cervical cancer is one of the most common lethal malignancies of young women. Epidemiologic studies clearly show that risk of cervical cancer rises as women become sexually active at earlier ages, have more sexual partners, and have unprotected sex more often. The FDA approved a vaccine to protect against HPV and cervical cancer that women can get before they become sexually active. 

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