Early detection is key for treating cancer. For several forms of cancers, there are screenings that can detect them before any symptoms occur. These screenings include mammograms, pap smears, HPV testing, prostate testing (digital rectal exams) and stool testing.
Different cancers produce different signs and symptoms. There are, however, several general early warning signs that should be heeded if you have been experiencing symptoms for more than a couple of weeks. These include:
- A lump under your skin
- Frequent fevers or infections
- Skin changes
- Changes in bowel habits or bladder function
- Unexplained weight loss
- Changes to your mouth
- Stomach or back pain
- Unusual bleeding or discharge
- Chronic coughing or hoarseness
A Lump Under Your Skin
It is usually difficult to differentiate between a benign (non-cancerous) tumour and a malignant tumour just by looking at it. Lumps or swellings anywhere in the body that do not disappear after a couple of weeks should be investigated. Lumps on your breast, necks, or genital area are of particular concern.
A lump in the head or neck area, with or without pain, could be a sign of head or neck cancer. In women, a lump or thickening in your breast or armpit could be a sign of breast cancer.
Frequent Fevers Or Infections
Frequent fevers are often a sign that the cancer has already reached an advanced stage. It could also be a sign that your immune system is compromised by blood cancers such as lymphoma or leukaemia.
The most common warning sign of skin cancer is a change on the skin, especially a new growth or a sore that does not heal. Cancer can start off as a small, smooth, shiny, or waxy lump. It may bleed or turn scaly.
Examples of skin changes that could be a sign of skin cancer include jaundice (yellowing of the skin), changes in an existing mole or a new unusual growth, changes in the skin of the breast or nipple (including dimpling, scaly skin or inflammation).
Pigmented changes in the skin can be a sign of melanoma, while changes in the skin of the breast might indicate breast cancer.
Changes In Bowel Habits Or Bladder Function
Changes in bowel habits or bladder function include stomach discomfort, blood in your faeces, unexplained diarrhoea or constipation. These changes can signal bowel, prostate or bladder cancer.
In men, a change in bladder function can be a sign of prostate cancer. The following symptoms are cause for concern and should be investigated by your doctor if they persist:
- Difficulty starting urination
- Weak or interrupted flow of urine
- Urinating often, especially at night
- Trouble emptying the bladder completely
- Pain or burning during urination
- Blood in the urine or semen
- Erectile dysfunction
- Discomfort or pain when sitting, caused by an enlarged prostate
In both men and women, changes in bowel habits could be a sign of bowel cancer. Blood in the stool, abdominal pain and a change in the consistency of the stool (including diarrhoea or constipation) should be monitored.
Unexplained Weight Loss
Unexplained weight loss could indicate that certain types of cancer have spread.
Unexplained weight loss is often the first visible symptom of cancers of the oesophagus, pancreas, stomach, and lung. Other types of cancer can cause symptoms that make eating difficult, such as nausea, lack of appetite or difficulty chewing or swallowing.
Changes To Your Mouth
Sores or lesions in your mouth that cause pain, and do not heal, could be a sign of oral cancer. This is especially common in those who smoke or regularly drink large quantities of alcohol.
Extreme fatigue (feeling tired and unwell) that does not get better with rest can be an early sign of cancer. Cancer depletes your body’s nutrients as it uses them to grow and advance the tumour. Nutrient deficiency can make you feel extremely tired.
Stomach Or Back Pain
Cancers located in the organs often cause abdominal pain.
Abdominal pain that is located in the upper abdomen and radiates to the back is a common symptom of metastasised pancreatic cancer. Kidney cancer often causes back pain on one side.
The liver is situated in the upper right area of the abdomen and liver cancer may cause pain in this location.
Ovarian, uterine and bladder cancer can cause abdominal or pelvic pain, which may sometimes be mistaken for back pain.
Unusual Bleeding Or Discharge
Talk to your doctor if you experience any unusual bleeding or discharge such as:
- blood in your urine
- vaginal bleeding between periods
- smelly vaginal discharge,
- vaginal bleeding a year or more after the menopause
- blood in your vomit
- blood when coughing
- bleeding from your bottom or blood in your faeces
Chronic Cough Or Hoarseness
A persistent chronic cough or hoarseness, that lasts longer than two weeks, could be a sign of lung cancer. Coughing up blood or experiencing chest pain or shortness of breath, are also symptoms of concern that should be reported to your doctor.
Bruising or bleeding is one of the most common symptoms associated with a blood cancer diagnosis. This symptom is particularly evident in people with leukaemia.