Symptoms and signs of cancer depend on the type of cancer, where it is located, and/or where the cancer cells have spread. For example, breast cancer may present as a lump in the breast or as nipple discharge while metastatic breast cancer may present with symptoms of pain (if spread to bones), extreme fatigue (lungs), or seizures (brain). A few patients show no signs or symptoms until the cancer is far advanced.
The American Cancer Society describes seven warning signs and/or symptoms that a cancer may be present, and which should prompt a person to seek medical attention. The word CAUTION can help you remember these.
Change in bowel or bladder habits
A sore throat that does not heal
Unusual bleeding or discharge (for example, nipple secretions or a “sore” that will not heal that oozes material)
Thickening or lump in the breast, testicles, or elsewhere
Indigestion (usually chronic) or difficulty swallowing
Obvious change in the size, color, shape, or thickness of a wart or mole
Nagging cough or hoarseness
Other signs or symptoms may also alert you or your doctor to the possibility of your having some form of cancer. These include the following:
Unexplained loss of weight or loss of appetite
A new type of pain in the bones or other parts of the body that may be steadily worsening, or come and go, but is unlike previous pains one has had before
Persistent fatigue, nausea, or vomiting
Unexplained low-grade fevers with may be either persistent or come and go
Recurring infections which will not clear with usual treatment
Anyone with these signs and symptoms should consult their doctor; these symptoms may also arise from noncancerous conditions.
Many cancers will present with some of the above general symptoms but often have one or more symptoms that are more specific for the cancer type. For example, lung cancer may present with common symptoms of pain, but usually the pain is located in the chest. The patient may have unusual bleeding, but the bleeding usually occurs when the patient coughs. Lung cancer patients often become short of breath and then become very fatigued.
Because there are so many cancer types (see next section) with so many nonspecific and sometimes more specific symptoms, the best way to learn about signs and symptoms of specific cancer types is to spend a few moments researching symptoms of a specific body area in question. Conversely, a specific body area can be searched to discover what signs and symptoms a person should look for in that area that is suspected of having cancer. The following examples are two ways to proceed to get information on symptoms:
Use a search engine (Google, Bing) to find links to cancer by listing the symptom followed by the term “cancer” or if you know the type you want information about, (lung, brain, breast) use MedicineNet’s search option. For example, listing “blood in urine and cancer” will bring a person to web sites that list possible organs and body systems where cancer may produce the listed symptoms.
Use a search engine as above and list the suspected body area and cancer (for example, bladder and cancer), and the person will see sites that list the signs and symptoms of cancer in that area (blood in urine being one of several symptoms listed).
Be aware that many web sites are not necessarily reviewed by a health care professional and could contain information that is not accurate. Your health care professional is ultimately the best resource if you have concerns.
In addition, if the cancer type is known (diagnosed), then even more specific searches can be done listing the diagnosed cancer type and whatever may be questioned about the cancer (symptoms, tumor grades, treatments, prognosis, and many other items).
One’s own research should not replace consulting a health care provider if someone is concerned about cancer.