Signs and Symptoms of Cancer

Cancer Symptoms

What are the early signs and symptoms of cancer everyone should know? With one out of two men and one in three women expected to develop cancer during their lifetime, this is an important question.

Cancer is not a single condition, but rather a group of over 200 different diseases because there are more than 200 different cell types in the body and cancer can develop from any of them. Considering this, there is a wide range of symptoms that could be "warning signs." Yet there are some symptoms that raise suspicion more than others—some of which may seem obvious and some that may surprise you.

There is a great deal of anxiety surrounding a discussion of cancer symptoms. This is illustrated by an all too common comment, "I was afraid to go to the doctor because I was afraid it could be cancer." Let's talk about why it's worth pushing through this anxiety in order to recognize and address the possible early symptoms of cancer.

Importance of Recognizing Cancer Symptoms

There is more than one reason to recognize—and consequently find—cancer in the earliest stages possible.

The most obvious reason is that finding cancer early may increase survival rates. In fact, this is the thought behind our current cancer screening tests. Though we still aren't sure if, and to what degree, early detection improves survival odds—and this likely varies significantly between cancers—we do know that life expectancy is greater for most cancers when they are found early.

Another reason for finding cancer early is to minimize the extent of treatment needed. A cancer that is large will obviously require more extensive surgery than a smaller tumor. The number of treatments needed may also be fewer if a cancer is found early.

For some cancers, only surgery is needed in the early stages, whereas further treatments, such as chemotherapy, are used when it has progressed further.

A seldom talked about reason for finding cancer early is simply the chance to begin treatment. Once a cancer is found and diagnosed, treatment to improve symptoms related to that cancer can be started. In this way, finding cancer early may minimize suffering.

Ignoring Cancer Symptoms Can Mean a Delay in Diagnosis

Despite the importance of addressing cancer symptoms, many people delay talking to their doctor. For example, a 2016 study found that the median time between noting symptoms of lung cancer and the eventual diagnosis was 12 months.

There are many reasons for this "denial" of symptoms. One is that it's hard to admit we could be susceptible to cancer, especially if we are trying to "do everything right." We know that cancer happens, but feel it will be someone else.

Others fear crying wolf. They worry that mentioning possible cancer symptoms will label them as a complainer, or worse yet a hypochondriac.

 Still, others believe that doing so is futile—that nothing can really be done anyway, so they wait.

And finally, there are financial concerns. Going to the doctor is rarely free. And many have heard stories of the financial devastation a diagnosis of cancer can bring.

Unfortunately, many of these reactions take place at a subconscious level. If you note any symptoms, make sure to consciously admit the symptom to yourself and share your concern with a loved one you trust. Your doctor wants you to bring up any unusual symptoms, and it can make a difference if cancer is found early. Even when cancers have progressed to a point in which they are no longer curable, they are still treatable. People are living longer than ever with cancer, as attested to by the 15 million cancer survivors in the United States alone.

Why Do Cancers Cause Symptoms?

Cancers can cause signs and symptoms in many different ways. Some cancers cause symptoms based on their specific location. A brain tumor may cause headaches, whereas ovarian cancer may cause abdominal bloating.

The severity of symptoms, however, may have little to do with the size of the tumor. A small brain tumor may cause a severe headache, while a large ovarian tumor may cause only mild abdominal pain.

Cancers can also cause symptoms due to their invasion of nearby structures or by pressing on nerves. For example, an ovarian cancer may cause constipation by pressing on the colon or a lung cancer may cause hoarseness by pressing on a nerve as it travels through the chest.

In addition, cancer often causes generalized symptoms, such as fatigue, weight loss, and a general sense of being unwell due to metabolic changes caused by the tumor.

Finally, some cancers cause unique symptoms based on compounds they produce and secrete. These symptoms—referred to as paraneoplastic syndromes—may present with symptoms caused by the actions of those compounds. For example, some lung cancers produce a hormone-like substance that raises the calcium level in the blood. Symptoms of hypercalcemia (high blood calcium), such as muscle aches, may, therefore, be the first symptom of the cancer.


Cancer Symptoms as Part of Diagnosis

Symptoms are certainly an important part of the diagnosis of cancer, but other information, such as risk factors for cancer and family history (genetics) are also very important to consider. For example, a cough in an 80-year-old man who smoked for 40 years is more likely to be lung cancer than a cough in an 18-year-old never-smoker. In addition, considering your family history is important, as genetic factors play an important role in some cancers. For example, 55 percent of melanomas are thought to have a genetic component.

That said, it's important not to dismiss symptoms due to a lack of risk factors. For example, breast cancer does occur in men. as well as many women without a family history of the disease. Lung cancer does occur in people who have never smoked. And colon cancer does occur in young men and women. If you have any of the following symptoms, don't ignore them, even if you have no risk factors or family history of cancer and have lived a healthy lifestyle.

15 Common Symptoms of Cancer

There are several common symptoms of cancer, but there are few that are specific to cancer. In other words, for each of the most common symptoms of cancer there can be causes other than cancer, and these other causes are often the most common cause. Back pain, for example, could be an early symptom of cancer, but it is more likely to be caused by a back strain, or even sleeping in an uncomfortable bed. Some common symptoms include:

Unexplained Weight Loss

Unintended weight loss is defined as the loss of 5 percent of body weight over a six- to 12-month period without trying. This is equivalent to a 130-pound woman losing 6 or 7 pounds or a 200-pound man losing roughly 10 pounds of weight. Though many people may welcome dropping a few pounds, it's important to see your doctor if you do unexpectedly lose weight.

Cancer is the cause of unintentional weight loss at least 25 percent of the time. While weight loss is more likely to occur in advanced cancers, it can occur in early-stage cancers as well. 

Cancer can cause weight loss in several ways. Changes in the metabolic activity of the body caused by a cancer may increase daily calorie needs. Cancers such as colon cancer can cause people to become full faster when eating. Other cancers may interfere with eating by causing nausea or difficulty swallowing. Sometimes people may simply not feel well enough to eat as they normally would.

The syndrome of cancer cachexia, which includes weight loss as well as muscle wasting, is not only a symptom of cancer but is considered the direct cause of death in up to 20 percent of people with cancer.

Lumps, Bumps, and Lymph Nodes

A lump or thickening anywhere on your body that does not have an explanation is an important first symptom of cancer.

Breast lumps could be cancer but could also easily be benign breast cysts or fibroadenomas. Breast cancer may also appear as redness, thickening, or an orange-peel appearance to the breast. It's important to see your doctor if you have any changes in your breast tissue and to know that breast cancer may be present even if you have a normal mammogram.    

Testicular lumps may be a symptom of testicular cancer, and just as women are encouraged to do monthly self-breast exams, men are encouraged to do monthly testicular self-exams

Enlarged lymph nodes may be the first sign of cancer—especially lymphomas—and can occur in many regions of the body. In fact, enlarged lymph nodes are one of the key warning signs of lymphoma.

You are probably familiar with the "swollen glands" in your neck that accompany a sore throat, but enlarged cervical lymph nodes may also be a symptom of cancer, especially if you do not have a fever and are otherwise healthy.

Lymph nodes in your armpit ( enlarged axillary lymph nodes) could be due to an infection in your arm or breast, or instead a sign of breast cancer or lymphoma, and enlarged lymph nodes in your groin (inguinal lymph nodes) could be a sign of cancers in the pelvic region (though they are more likely to be due to an infection.)

Lymph nodes function as a “dumpster” in some ways. The first cancer cells to escape a tumor tend to be caught in the lymph nodes closest to a tumor, and many cancers spread to nearby lymph nodes before spreading further in the body.

Other bumps, thickenings, or even bruises out of proportion to an injury should be evaluated by your doctor.  

Night Sweats

Night sweats are a common symptom of cancer, especially leukemias and lymphomas. Night sweats that occur with cancer are not simply "hot flashes" but instead often drenching sweats—to  the point at which people need to get out of bed and change their pajamas, sometimes repeatedly. Unlike hot flashes which may occur at any time of the day or night, night sweats are more common at night.

Night sweats in men should always be evaluated by your doctor. While this can be an important symptom of cancer in women as well, it can be hard to differentiate what is "normal" or not in women, especially those who are in the early stages of menopause.

Abnormal Menstrual Bleeding 

Abnormal vaginal bleeding can be a sign of cancer but certainly has many benign causes as well. Abnormal bleeding can take many forms, ranging from bleeding between periods, periods that are heavier or lighter than usual, bleeding after sex, or bleeding after you have completed menopause.

Cancers of the uterus, cervix, and vagina may cause bleeding directly related to a tumor. Hormonal changes due to cancers, such as ovarian cancer, may also cause changes in your menstrual cycle. Every woman is different, and the most important symptoms are those that indicate a change in what is normal for you.

Changes in Bowel Habits

If you experience changes in your bowel habits from color to consistency talk to your doctor. Symptoms of colon cancer can range from diarrhea to constipation, but what is most concerning is simply a change in your usual habits. Thin stools (pencil stools) can be a symptom of a colon cancer, and may occur when a tumor causes a partial obstruction of the bowel.

Rectal Bleeding

If you see blood in your stool you will likely be worried, but as with other possible cancer symptoms, there are many benign causes as well. 

The color of the blood is sometimes useful in determining the origin of the blood (but not the cause.) Bleeding from the lower colon (left colon) and rectum is often bright red. That from the upper colon (right colon) and small intestine is often dark red, brown, or black. And blood from higher up, for example, the esophagus or stomach, is very dark and often resembles coffee grounds.

Other causes of rectal bleeding include hemorrhoids, anal fissures, and colitis, but an important point to note is that—even if you have these other conditions—it does not mean that you don't also have colon cancer. In fact, some types of colitis are a risk factor for colon cancer. If you have this symptom, make sure to see your doctor even if you think there is a reasonable cause.

A Persistent Cough

A persistent cough may be a symptom of lung cancer or a cancer which has spread to the lungs. Roughly half of people with lung cancer have a chronic cough at the time of diagnosis. Cancers which commonly spread to the lungs include breast cancer, colon cancer, kidney cancer, and prostate cancer.

A cough can be caused by a narrowing of the airways caused by a tumor, or as the result of infections which arise as a result of tumors in the lungs.

Pain – Chest, Abdominal, Pelvic, Back, or Head

Pain occurring anywhere in your body could be a possible symptom of cancer. If you have any unexplained pain that persists, especially pain you would describe as a deep ache, talk to your doctor. 

Head pain - Headaches are the most common symptom of brain cancer or tumors that have spread (metastasized) to the brain, but certainly most headaches are not due to cancer. The classic headache due to a brain tumor is severe, at its worst in the morning and progresses over time. These headaches may worsen with activities such as coughing or bearing down for a bowel movement, and may occur on one side only. People with a headache related to a brain tumor frequently have other symptoms, such as nausea and vomiting, weakness of one side of the body, or new onset seizures. Yet brain tumors can cause headaches that are indistinguishable from a tension headache, and may be the only sign that a tumor is present.

Cancer spread to the brain (brain metastases) are seven times more common than primary brain tumors, and cause similar symptoms. Cancers most likely to spread to the brain include breast cancer, lung cancer, bladder cancer, and melanoma. It's not uncommon for people with brain metastases, especially those with small cell lung cancer, to have symptoms related to a tumor in the brain before they have symptoms due to the primary cancer.

Back pain – The most common cause of back pain is a back strain, but back pain that persists and doesn't have an obvious cause could be a symptom of cancer as well. Back pain related to cancer is often (but not always) worse at night, does not improve when you lie down, and may worsen with a deep breath or during bowel movements. Back pain can be caused by tumors in the chest, abdomen, or pelvis, or by metastases to the spine from other cancers.

Shoulder pain - Pain that is felt in the shoulders or shoulder blades can easily be due to a muscle strain, but it can be an important early symptom of cancer. Referred pain from lung cancer, breast cancer, and lymphomas, as well as metastases from other cancers, may cause aching in the shoulders or shoulder blade pain

Chest pain - There are many causes of chest pain, with heart disease often being a prime suspect. Yet unexplained chest pain can be a symptom of cancer as well. Though the lung does not have nerve endings, pain that feels like "lung pain" is present in a large number of people who are diagnosed with lung cancer.

Abdominal or pelvic pain - As with pain in other regions of the body, abdominal pain and pelvic pain are most often associated with conditions other than cancer. One of the difficulties with pain in the abdomen and pelvis, however, is that it's often hard to determine where the pain begins.

Shortness of breath

Shortness of breath is one of the leading early symptoms of lung cancer. While you may associate lung cancer with a chronic cough, the most common symptoms of lung cancer have changed over time. A few decades ago the most common types of the disease tended to grow near the large airways in the lungs; a location which frequently caused a cough and coughing up blood. Today, the most common form of lung cancer—lung adenocarcinoma—tends to grow in the outer regions of the lungs. These tumors can grow quite large before they are detected, and often cause shortness of breath with activity as their first symptom.


Fatigue is a very common symptom of cancer, so how can you know if it's a problem? Unlike ordinary tiredness, cancer fatigue is often much more persistent and disabling. Some people describe this tiredness as “total body tiredness” or exhaustion. It's not something you can push through with a good night of rest or a strong cup of coffee. The hallmark of this kind of fatigue is that it significantly interferes with your life.

There are many ways in which cancer can cause fatigue. The growth of a tumor, in general, can be taxing for your body. Other symptoms of cancer such as shortness of breath, anemia, pain, or a decreased level of oxygen in your blood (hypoxia) can cause fatigue. If you find that fatigue is disrupting your normal activities, make sure to talk to your doctor.

Skin Changes

There are many types of "skin changes" that could be a symptom of skin cancer. Some of these include new "spots" on your skin no matter the color, a sore that does not heal, or a change in a mole or freckle. While skin cancers such as basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma are more common, melanoma is responsible for the majority of deaths from skin cancer.

Everyone should memorize the ABCD signs of melanoma. These include:

  • A - Asymmetry - Melanomas tend to be asymmetrical.
  • B - Border - Melanomas often have irregular rather than smooth or round borders.
  • C - Color - Melanomas are often colorful, although the colors may range from flesh colored, to red, to brown, to black. The classic description of melanoma as a "red, white, and blue mole" isn't very common, but melanomas often have varying colors within one mole.
  • D - Diameter - Any "mole" with a diameter larger than a pencil eraser should be evaluated by your doctor.
  • E - Elevation or evolving - Melanomas may be elevated (sometimes with different degrees of elevation in different parts of the mole) and evolve or grow over time.
  • F - Some dermatologists add an F to the mnemonic for "funny looking." No matter what a skin spot or mole looks like, if it looks abnormal to you, talk to your doctor.

It's worth noting that melanomas are often first noticed by someone else. If your neighbor has a suspicious looking skin spot, don't be afraid to say something. They may seem put off for a moment, but it could save their life.

Bloating (Abdominal Distension)

Abdominal swelling or bloating may be a first symptom of several cancers, including ovarian cancer, pancreatic cancer, and colon cancer. You may feel a fullness in your abdomen, or may note that your clothes are tighter around the middle even though you haven't gained weight.

Ovarian cancer has been coined the "silent killer" as symptoms often occur late in the disease, and then are frequently dismissed as due to something else. It's been found that bloating is a common symptom of ovarian cancer, but women often attribute this symptom to weight gain or other causes. Likewise, constipation, pain with intercourse, constipation, and frequent urination can be symptoms of ovarian cancer but are often first attributed to other causes. If you notice any of these symptoms talk to your doctor. Ovarian cancer can be curable when caught early.

Blood in Urine

Blood in your urine can be a symptom of bladder cancer, and even if you note only a pink tinge to your urine make sure to see your doctor. This is extra important if you have a history of smoking. You are probably familiar with smoking as a cause of lung cancer, but fewer people are aware that smoking is responsible for at least half of bladder cancers.

Difficulty Swallowing

Difficulty swallowing, also known as dysphagia, can be a symptom of cancer. It is often the first symptom of esophageal cancer due to narrowing of the esophagus. Since the esophagus travels through the area between the lungs (called the mediastinum) tumors in this region such as lung cancer and lymphomas often cause this symptom as well.

Gut Feeling (Intuition)

Your "intuition" may sound strange as an early symptom of cancer, but take a moment to think about people you've known with cancer. It's common for people to have what they describe as a "gut feeling" that something is amiss. We often hear people say things such as, "I knew something was wrong." 

A 2016 study confirms this thought and explains why intuition belongs on a list of common early symptoms of cancer. A fairly large British study evaluated the most common symptoms of colorectal cancer. While rectal bleeding and bowel changes were the two most common “first symptoms," the third most commonly reported symptom prior to diagnosis was described as "feeling different."

Less Common (But No Less Important) Symptoms of Cancer

There are several less common, but no less important symptoms which may alert people to the presence of a cancer. Some of these include:

  • Blood clots - There are many risk factors for blood clots in the legs known as deep vein thrombosis (DVT). In recent years it's been noted that one of these factors can be a previously undiagnosed cancer. It's important to know the symptoms of DVT's not just because of this reason, however, but because they often break off and travel to the lungs, something known as a pulmonary embolus.
  • Urinary changes - Changes in urination such as frequency or difficulty starting your stream can be an early symptom of cancer.
  • Heartburn or indigestion - Chronic heartburn due to gastroesophageal reflux disease is an important cause of esophageal cancer. If you have long-standing heartburn, talk to your doctor about screening.
  • Shingles - Shingles, a condition caused by reactivation of the chickenpox virus, can be a symptom of underlying cancer.
  • Depression - Recent studies have found that new onset depression is a fairly common early symptom of cancer.
  • Fractures with minimal trauma - When cancers spread to bones they can weaken them so that fractures occur with minimal trauma. A fracture that occurs in a bone weakened by cancer is called a pathologic fracture.
  • Easy bruising - Cancers which infiltrate the bone marrow can reduce the number of platelets in your blood. Decreased platelets, in turn, can result in easy bruising.
  • White patches in your mouth - White patches on the gums or tongue—called leukoplakia—could be an early symptom of oral cancers, and many doctors now routinely screen for this during regular dental exams. Whereas smoking and drinking were the prime culprits causing these cancers in the past, many are now felt to be caused by infections with the human papillomavirus (HPV.)

Symptoms of Specific Cancers

The following links describe further the signs and symptoms of the most common cancers:

When to See Your Doctor

As noted earlier, there are very few symptoms that specifically mean cancer. So, how can you know if you should be concerned about a symptom you are experiencing? When should you call your doctor?

The answer is that any symptom that is new to you (and also those you have been living with which are unexplained) or any change in bowel, bladder, or menstrual habits that are out of the ordinary for you are worth discussing with your doctor. Oftentimes, these symptoms will turn out to be related to conditions other than cancer, but asking the question in the first place is important to avoid missing an early diagnosis of cancer.

Cancer Screening Tests and Cancer Symptoms

We now have cancer screening tests available for several cancers, but a quick word is in order. The purpose of screening tests is to detect cancer in people who do not have any symptoms. If you have any symptoms of cancer, you may need testing beyond that offered in screening tests. For example, if you have a breast lump, a screening mammogram alone isn't enough to be able to diagnose whether or not it is cancer. 

A Word From Verywell

In reading this article you have taken a big step towards being an active advocate for your health. Having an awareness of, and recognizing the early symptoms of cancer is an important part of caring for your body. Due to advances in early detection and treatment of cancer, people are surviving—and thriving—longer than ever before with the disease. 

If you have any of the cancer symptoms noted above—or any symptoms not listed for that matter—talk to your doctor. At times it may be hard to determine the precise cause of a symptom. Be persistent. Symptoms are our body's way of telling us that something is wrong. If you aren't getting answers, ask for a referral or get a second opinion. Nobody knows your body or what is normal for you better than you do, and nobody else is as motivated to make sure it stays healthy.


American Cancer Society. Cancer Facts and Figures 2016.

American Cancer Society. Cancer Prevention and Early Detection Facts and Figures 2015-2016.

Hamilton W, Walter F, Rubin G, Neal R. Improving Early Diagnosis of Symptomatic Cancer. Nature Reviews: Clinical Oncology. 2016 Jul 26. (Epub ahead of print).

Walter F, Emery J, Mendonca S, et al. Symptoms and Patient Factors Associated with Longer Time to Diagnosis for Colorectal Cancer: Results From a Prospective Cohort Study. British Journal of Cancer. 2016 Aug 4. (Epub ahead of time).

Zeichner S, Montero A. Detecting Cancer: Pearls for the Primary Care Physician. Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine. 2016. 83(7):515-23.

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