Cancer Symptoms To Look Out For (And When You Should See A Doctor)

Throughout the world, cancer is the second leading cause of death, and 30% to 50% of cases are preventable. If you can spot the signs early, treatment will become smoother. However, many people don’t visit the doctor during their early symptoms. According to a 2016 study, most lung cancer patients waited for 12 months before seeing a professional.

Some early symptoms may seem like other disorders or even go unnoticed. So when should you visit the doctor? Learn which early cancer symptoms to look out for and when you should receive professional help.

Difficulty Swallowing

A woman clutches her throat.
BSIP/UIG Via Getty Images
BSIP/UIG Via Getty Images

Difficulty swallowing is called dysphagia, and it’s a common symptom of those who have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). In extreme cases, it’s also a sign of esophageal cancer. John Hopkins Medicine clarifies that if you have trouble swallowing, and it gets worse over time, you may want to see a doctor.

If you haven’t been diagnosed with GERD or another digestive disorder that causes chronic heartburn, the doctor may check for those first. Esophageal cancer is often caused by substance abuse and stomach disorders. People with these conditions may want to see a doctor.

Skin Color Changing

A woman checks her face in the mirror.
Pinterest/nancy ali
Pinterest/nancy ali

If your skin color begins to change noticeably, don’t ignore it. According to the American Cancer Society, skin color changes indicate problems with different parts of the body. For instance, yellowish skin may indicate liver problems. Bluish skin may display breathing issues, and frequent bruises may suggest a blood illness.

According to dermatologist Dr. Bruce Robinson, cancer is the rarest result of skin color changing. More common explanations are pregnancy, fungi, eczema, and other skin conditions. Even so, you may want to see a doctor if your skin drastically changes color.

Abnormal Back Pain

An illustration shows a man clutching his back in pain.
Pixabay/mohamed_hassan
Pixabay/mohamed_hassan

If back pain prevents feeling and walking, it could result from spinal cancer. This usually happens when other cancer cells move to the spine, according to Dr. Mike Chen of City of Hope. Patients with kidney, lung, prostate, or breast cancer have the highest risk.

According to City of Hope, cancerous back pain usually has no known cause (such as poor posture or muscle strain). The back pain often accompanies numbness in the arms or legs, and it sometimes results in difficulty controlling bladder functions.

Loss Of Appetite

An older woman shows no interest in eating.
Pinterest/HysterSisters Hysterectomy
Pinterest/HysterSisters Hysterectomy

According to the National Cancer Institute, severe appetite changes could be a sign of cancer. In many cases, patients in the late stages of the disease experience a loss of appetite because of chemotherapy. As an early sign of cancer, appetite loss could result from stomach, colon, or ovarian cancers putting pressure on your stomach.

How can you tell if you need a doctor? According to the American Cancer Society, you may want to see a specialist if you lose three pounds or more from appetite loss. If you haven’t eaten for more than a day or struggle to keep food down, call a doctor.

Fever That Doesn’t Disappear

A cartoon woman lies in bed with a fever.
Pixabay/Fanette
Pixabay/Fanette

In most cases, fevers usually last between two to three days. Temperatures over 100°F often go down within this time. But if a fever continues to rise and fall over several days, it could be an early sign of cancer. Cancer Research UK claims that kidney, liver, ovarian, and lymphoma cancers may cause a persistent fever.

According to Dr. Tom Iarocci, cancer fevers are usually dubbed “fevers of unknown origin.” These usually exceed 101°F and last for around three weeks without a doctor being able to diagnose it. At this point, doctors may check for blood cancers.

White Patches On Mouth Or Tongue

A person shows a white sore they have on the inside of their lip.
Twitter/@ShareDentalCare
Twitter/@ShareDentalCare

White patches can form anywhere on the mouth, including on the tongue, inside of cheeks, and within the throat. According to Cambridge University Hospitals, these spots form when the skin in the mouth gathers to heal an injury or infection. Cancer Research UK clarifies that these spots are not cancer, but if left untreated, they can develop into mouth cancer.

White patches, called leukoplakia, can form in the mouth from irritating substances. In a mild case, they’ll go away on their own. If these spots accompany pain, or if they won’t go away, talk to a doctor.

Abnormally Intense Headaches That Don’t Get Better

In this illustration, sparks animated on a man's head symbolize pain.
Gezett/ullstein bild via Getty Images
Gezett/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Most headaches go away after taking pain medication or a nap, but cancer-related headaches aren’t easy to shake. According to the Cancer Treatment Centers of America, cancerous headaches are usually a dull or harsh throb that don’t develop into a migraine. In the case of brain cancer, headaches often begin in the morning and improve throughout the day.

Cancer-related headaches often accompany other symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, light sensitivity, dizziness, and difficulty moving or speaking. Cancer.net explains that these symptoms could arise from cancer of the nose, brain, and throat.

Extreme Fatigue Without Explanation

A schoolboy falls asleep on his homework.
Godong/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Godong/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Cancer-related fatigue, or cancer fatigue, may surface as a side effect of patients undergoing treatment. But extreme fatigue can also foreshadow cancer. Nita Ahuja, a surgical oncologist at John Hopkins, defines this fatigue as tiredness that doesn’t get better with rest.

Because your body uses a lot of nutrients to fight cancer, fatigue can appear during the early stages, especially of leukemia and lymphoma. According to Cancer Network, fatigue usually disrupts a person’s life both mentally and physically. Fatigue can also be a symptom of chronic fatigue syndrome, so talk to a doctor if you struggle with life-altering tiredness.

Wounds Don’t Heal

A scabbed wound appears on a woman's leg.
Flickr/Caitlin Regan
Flickr/Caitlin Regan

When wounds don’t heal or scab over for weeks or months, they’re called chronic wounds. These pose many risks, including infection. But if your injury continues to scab (or not scab) over three months with no noticeable healing, you need to see a doctor, says Christi Cavaliere, the Cleveland Clinic Wound Healing Medical Director.

Cancer Research UK reports that chronic wounds are common symptoms of skin cancer. But according to Dr. Cavaliere, they are more likely the result of pressure ulcers, venous ulcers, or diabetic ulcers. Still, you’ll want to see a doctor for help.

Muscle Weakness

A caricature shows a man with weak arm muscles.
Pixabay/Pezibear
Pixabay/Pezibear

Muscle weakness differs from fatigue in that it may only appear after exercise. In cancer patients, muscle weakness could come from chemo. According to Cancer.net, muscle weariness and pain can result from a tumor growing on a muscle or possibly touching muscles.

Muscle weakness is also a common sign of mesothelioma, according to the Mesothelioma Center. Some patients may not notice the symptom at first since it is also a common side effect of diabetes. If muscle weakness only gets worse over time, you may want to get a professional’s opinion.

Unexplained Weight Loss

A woman stands on a scale to measure her weight.
Photofusion/Keith Morris/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Photofusion/Keith Morris/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

According to WebMD, two out of five cancer patients lose a significant amount of weight. While this usually stems from chemotherapy, patients can also lose weight in the early stages of cancer. Cancer Care explains that the body tries to fight cancer with substances called cytokines, which eat at muscle and fat.

The American Cancer Society states that unexplained weight loss is often the first sign of esophageal, lung, pancreas, and stomach cancer. If you lose over 5% of your body weight over six months (without a change of diet or exercise), you may want to consult a doctor.

Lumps In The Neck (Even Without Pain)

A woman rubs her neck while looking at a computer.
BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Lumps in the neck usually form when lymph nodes swell as they fight off infection. As an early sign of cancer, lumps can appear around the lymph nodes and the throat. The Moffitt Cancer Center explains that cancerous lumps usually appear when no other infection is present.

If you have an unusual lump on your neck with no apparent cause, you may want to visit a doctor. These lumps can be symptoms of mouth, throat, and thyroid cancer, according to WebMD. However, they could also indicate a viral or bacterial infection.

Having An Overactive Bladder

Male and female restroom logos pose like they have to use the restroom.
Pixabay/Zorro4
Pixabay/Zorro4

Overactive bladders, called OABs, may become apparent with age. But sudden, unexplainable OAB may be a sign of colon cancer. U.S. Pharmacist warns patients about “dry” OAB, in which nothing comes out despite the urge, and “wet” OAB in which urine does come out. If symptoms interrupt your daily life, talk to a professional.

The American Cancer Fund says that over 90% of bladder cancer patients are over the age of 50. If you can’t distinguish between natural and cancerous OAB, ask your doctor. Cancerous OAB usually accompanies blood, straining, and pain as well.

Night Sweats

A man lies in bed with a glass of milk, unable to fall asleep.
Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

When people sweat so much during the night that they wake up in wet sheets, they suffer from night sweats. This symptom is common in cancer survivors, women undergoing menopause, and different types of cancer. Researchers don’t know why night sweats happen with certain cancers, although some suspect that it could be the body fighting off the infection.

According to the National Cancer Institute, night sweats can arise during leukemia, lymphoma, liver cancer, and bone cancer. The symptom could also stem from hormonal imbalances in both men and women, which may also require medication.

A Cough That You Can’t Shake

A man coughs.
BSIP/UIG Via Getty Images
BSIP/UIG Via Getty Images

Cold and fever patients can continue to cough weeks after their main symptoms subsided. But those with a chronic cough–which lasts for over eight weeks–may want to see a professional. Chronic coughs may be an early sign of lung cancer, which is most treatable in the early stages, according to Cancer.net.

Dr. Lynne Eldridge of Very Well Health adds the cancerous coughs usually appear alongside other symptoms. Shortness of breath, coughing up blood, unexplained weight loss, and chest pain may indicate cancer. If your cough seems unusually long or severe, consult a doctor.

Severe Chest Pain

A man leans against a tree and clutches his chest in pain.
BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Chest pain is a common symptom of colds or respiratory infections. In extreme cases, it could be a symptom of lung cancer. In this case, chest pain may grow worse when breathing deeply, laughing, or coughing says the Lung Cancer Foundation of America.

Having frequent respiratory infections that never seem to heal is also an indication of lung cancer. The American Lung Association adds that other types of pain may result from cancer, such as headaches, shoulder pain, and muscle soreness. Remember, though, that only a doctor can diagnose your pain.

Change In Stool Habits

A man leaves a portable toilet.
BEN STANSALL/AFP via Getty Images
BEN STANSALL/AFP via Getty Images

Our stools and bowel movements frequently change with our diets. But if these changes last for an unusually long time, says the American Cancer Society, they could be a sign of a more severe disease. These changes include diarrhea, constipation, and consistency of your stool.

Changes in stool may indicate colon cancer if it accompanies abdominal pain, bleeding, fatigue, and weight loss. Medical News Today advises patients to see a doctor if the symptoms are persistent. Constipation can take a while to go away, though, so always talk to your doctor.

Excessive Hair Growth

A model tugs her hair into pigtails.
Bill Brandt/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Bill Brandt/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Hirsutism is a condition in which hair grows excessively, even where it isn’t supposed to. In women, hirsutism results in dark, thick hair on the face, chest, abdomen, or back. It is often caused by hormonal shifts, mainly the secretion of the male hormone, androgens. Hence, hirsutism could be a sign of adrenal cancer, according to Cleveland Clinic.

During adrenal cancer, tumors rest on the adrenal glands near the kidneys. If cancer is the cause, excessive hair loss may accompany weight shifts, weakness, high blood pressure, or depression. Otherwise, it could stem from another hormonal imbalance.

Moles Suddenly And Abnormally Change

A dermatologist checks moles on a patient.
FRED TANNEAU/AFP via Getty Images
FRED TANNEAU/AFP via Getty Images

According to dermatologist Laurie Kohen, it’s normal for moles to change over time. But certain changes could indicate a risk of melanoma, or skin cancer. If a mole changes color, says Dr. Kohen, it may be a cause for concern. The same goes if a mole spontaneously starts bleeding.

The National Cancer Institute reports more symptoms to look out for. If a mole changes drastically in shape and texture, or if it feels hard and lumpy, you may want to visit a dermatologist. Moles that are dry, flaky, and start to itch also need to be checked.

Shortness Of Breath Over A Long Period

A girl uses her asthma inhaler.
Photofusion/Brian Mitchell/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Photofusion/Brian Mitchell/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

According to Cancer Network, over half the patients at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center’s emergency room complain about shortness of breath, or dyspnea. Sandra Henke, a thoracic oncology nurse, says that breathlessness is a symptom of lung cancer. But it doesn’t show up until the later stages of the disease.

Most patients are already diagnosed by the time they feel shortness of breath. If dyspnea results from cancer, then it usually joins other cancer symptoms. Still, 50% to 70% of cancer patients have dyspnea at some point, says Cancer Research UK.

A Croaky, Hoarse Voice That Doesn’t Go Away

An artistic  version of a man shows pain (redness) in the throat.
Twitter/@Stop_SoreThroat
Twitter/@Stop_SoreThroat

According to Cancer Research UK, having an unusually hoarse voice for over three weeks is a common sign of laryngeal cancer. A croaky voice could result from substance abuse, thyroid issues, allergies, or acid reflux. But in these instances, a hoarse voice wouldn’t last for over three weeks.

The National Health Institute says that a prolonged croaky voice may indicate laryngeal cancer or perhaps laryngitis. Both should be examined by a doctor. This symptom could also result from lung cancer, according to Cleveland Clinic.

Mouth Wounds That Won’t Heal

A woman checks her mouth in the mirror.
BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Many people get mouth sores or ulcers from irritation. Because the skin in the mouth renews every two weeks, these injuries usually heal quickly. If they don’t heal after three weeks, beware. This could result in a larger illness, such as oral cancer, says Cancer Research UK.

The American Cancer Society adds that people should watch out for gums that look red, shiny, or swollen. This is usually a sign of the mouth fighting off an infection. If redness or sores don’t get better beyond 48 hours, you may want to see a doctor.

Abdominal Pain And Swelling

A man clutches his stomach in abdominal pain.
Pixabay/derneuemann
Pixabay/derneuemann

Stomach pain can happen for many reasons and is often hard to diagnose. However, a specific kind of stomach pain may indicate stomach cancer. According to the Cancer Treatment Centers of America, stomach cancer pain usually occurs above the navel. Stomach swelling usually happens alongside the pain.

General surgeon Kevin El-Hayek of Cleveland Clinic says that the early signs of stomach cancer are often overlooked as general stomach issues. If your symptoms add up, he says, visit a doctor. Other signs include fatigue, loss of appetite, and unusual bowel or stool changes.

Bone Pain

X-ray scans of an ankle sit on a table.
May-Ying Lam/For The Washington Post via Getty Images
May-Ying Lam/For The Washington Post via Getty Images

Bone pain usually occurs as a dull ache in the pelvis, ribs, legs, or arm regions. It is one of the first signs of metastatic cancer, according to Texas Oncology. At first, it may occur only at night or during exercise. Over time, joint pain may become worse.

When cancer cells spread to the bones, sometimes as a leftover result of other cancers, it is called metastasis, says the University of Rochester Medical Center. They explain that doctors can tell the difference between metastasis and other joint pain, so consult a doctor if you’re concerned.

Unusual Rashes

A light red rash appears on a person's arm.
Pixabay/Hans
Pixabay/Hans

In some cases, rashes are a symptom of skin cancer or a rare blood cancer called mycosis fungoides. However, these rashes aren’t normal. A member of the British Association of Dermatologists, Dr. Walayat Hussain, explained that these blistering rashes are severe. They can appear from the feet to the inside of the mouth, and the red patches may grow worse over time.

“This is a tricky subject to discuss without alarming people,” Dr. Hussain told The Sun. But rest assured that you’ll know when something is wrong. Dr. Paul Raffer, who was diagnosed with mycosis fungoides in 2008, said that he felt his entire body itching.

Persistent Bloating

A woman clutches her stomach from bloating.
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Twitter/@heshnarayanan

Constant bloating can be a symptom of ovarian cancer. However, a study from a UK Charity found that only 34% of women seek medical help when they’re regularly bloated. Dr. Monique Swain, an obstetrician and gynecologist, says that if bloating doesn’t disappear after diet changes, it’s time to speak up.

In the case of ovarian cancer, bloating may make people feel full after eating very little. Gynecologic oncologist Amina Ahmed says that stomach swelling may be visible, a symptom called abdominal distension. If bloating doesn’t go away despite habit or diet changes, talk to a doctor.

Swelling Of The Face And Neck

A woman's cheeks are swollen.
Twitter/@hannahpeterlech
Twitter/@hannahpeterlech

When your face and neck visibly swells, it may not relate to your face and neck at all. It could actually be a sign of lung cancer, according to LungCancer.net. The swelling happens when a tumor presses against a vein that sends blood to the head.

According to the National Cancer Institute, body swelling (or edema) could also result from other cancers or treatment procedures. Before you assume that the swelling is cancer, ask your doctor if any medications or dietary changes contribute to the symptom.

Wheezing Or Whistling While Breathing

A girl wheezes while she's being checked by the doctor.
BSIP/UIG Via Getty Images
BSIP/UIG Via Getty Images

While persistent coughing and shortness of breath are both symptoms of lung cancer, a more severe symptom may be wheezing. According to LungCancer.net, patients may wheeze to the point of making a slight whistling sound while breathing.

Dr. Charles Patrick Davis of eMedicine Health says that this symptom may also indicate asthma or a respiratory infection. Lung cancer may create other unusual symptoms, such as coughing up blood, low sodium and calcium, loss of appetite, and dizziness. When in doubt, consult your doctor.

Numbness And Tingling

A man stares, concerned, at his numb fingers.
Twitter/@WinSanTor
Twitter/@WinSanTor

Many people know the feeling of a limb “falling asleep” when the lack of blood flow causes a numb and tingling sensation. Sometimes, numbness results from neuropathy, or nerve damage, that’s a side effect of chemotherapy. It could also stem from blood, spinal, prostate, and lung cancers.

According to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, only 10% to 20% of cancer patients experience numbness. This numbness or tingling persists without an obvious cause, says the American Cancer Society. If a numb or tingling sensation doesn’t seem to stop, consult a professional.

Physical Changes In The Breasts

A drawing shows a woman pointing to a breast cancer ribbon on her chest.
Pixabay/waldryano
Pixabay/waldryano

Breast cancer often creates physical alterations of the breast. According to the Centers for Disease Control, these changes may vary wildly. A new lump in the breast, usually near the armpit, is the most obvious symptom. Redness, discharge (other than breast milk), or physical alterations to the nipple are also clear symptoms.

In other cases, nipples may become red and itchy, or even turn inward, according to the American Cancer Society. These symptoms could also suggest a breast infection or cyst. Every once in a while, examine your own breasts to see if something seems off.

Unusual And Unexplained Bruising

A man shows a bruise on his knee.
Lewis Geyer/Digital First Media/Boulder Daily Camera via Getty Images
Lewis Geyer/Digital First Media/Boulder Daily Camera via Getty Images

A small, occasional bruise is nothing out of the ordinary. But if you frequently see unexplained bruises, especially in odd areas such as fingers, it may suggest a larger problem. According to a 2018 survey called Living with Leukemia, 24% of blood cancer patients receive several unusual bruises.

Leukemia Care explains that these bruises usually appear on the back, legs, and hands. They may be larger than usual or take an abnormally long time to heal. A deficiency in healthy blood cells causes the bruising.

Dizziness

A blurred photo of a television tower illustrates dizziness.
Jens Kalaene/picture alliance via Getty Images
Jens Kalaene/picture alliance via Getty Images

As a symptom, dizziness is a catch-all term for feeling lightheaded, off-balance, or vertigo. Occasional dizziness can result from medications, respiratory issues, or stress. In extreme cases, a tumor in the brain can also prompt lightheadedness, says Cancer.net.

According to UPMC Health Beat, cancerous dizziness usually happens alongside other symptoms. Fever, chest pain, muscle stiffness, or feeling unable to walk are signs that the vertigo feeling may be serious. Dizziness that lasts over a couple of days may also suggest that something is wrong.

(Maybe) Persistent Heartburn

A man clenches his fist while experiencing heartburn at night.
Tom Kelley/Getty Images
Tom Kelley/Getty Images

The connection between heartburn and esophageal cancer is prominent but confusing. According to Cancer Research UK, persistent heartburn is a symptom of esophageal cancer. However, doctors at Rush University say that chronic heartburn doesn’t necessarily mean you have cancer.

Persistent heartburn is a symptom of GERD, which is a chronic condition. Over time, 10% of GERD patients have stomach cells grow inside their esophagus–a condition called Barrett’s esophagus. This condition can lead to tumorous growth over time. Going on the right diet and medication for heartburn can prevent cancer.

Joint Swelling And Stiffness

A diagram shows pain in a runner's knee.
Twitter/@jbjs
Twitter/@jbjs

Certain treatments, including chemotherapy, are known to swell joints. If a joint swells for seemingly no reason, it could signal osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, this swelling may cause a joint to stiffen, hurt, or form a lump that makes it hard to move.

When should you visit a doctor for joint swelling? The Rogel Cancer Center says that extreme fatigue and redness are solid reasons to see a professional. Having a fever, along with joint pain, could indicate an infection.

Pain In Your Side That Doesn’t Disappear

A jogger clutches her side in pain.
BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Side pain differs from stomach pain in that it feels more like an ache and less like nausea. Persistent side pain that spreads to your abdomen or back may be an early sign of kidney or pancreatic cancer, according to the Urology Care Foundation. This pain may stay near the upper back and fade in and out.

Extreme side aches may occur from chemotherapy, according to Chemocare. If stomach swelling, fever, dizziness, sweating, unusual stool, or nausea occur with side pain, it’s time to visit a professional.

High Calcium Levels

A boy drinks milk.
Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images
Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images

According to UCLA Health, cancer is the second most likely cause of high calcium in the blood (the first being hyperparathyroidism. Mouth, breast, kidney, blood, and cervical cancers may cause calcium over-production. Some people may not notice symptoms of high calcium and will learn through a blood test.

According to the Canadian Cancer Society, symptoms of high calcium include nausea, vomiting, confusion, dark urine, and intense thirst. Take regular blood tests to ensure that you’re in the clear, and remember that there are several potential causes for high calcium.

Unexplained Feminine Bleeding

A woman in a bathing suit holds a tampon.
BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Abnormal feminine bleeding, such as spotting in between periods, is common for women. It can result from birth control changes or other hormonal shifts. However, 90% of endometrial cancer patients experience abnormal bleeding, according to the American Cancer Society. But how can you tell when a period needs attention?

Oncologist Aruna Turaka of UnityPoint Health defines abnormal periods as heavier and longer than your usual cycle. If your periods last double the time, or if you experience more than one period in a month, talk to a doctor.

Painful Urination

a woman experiencing stomach pain
BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Painful urination is called dysuria, and it can happen for several different reasons. If you struggle to urinate or experience a burning or itching sensation, you may want to see a doctor. The symptom could stem from bladder stones, a urinary tract infection, kidney infection, or STD. The National Cancer Institute lists it as a warning sign of both bladder and prostate cancers.

According to the American Cancer Society, between 80% and 90% of bladder cancer patients experience painful urination. Most also see blood in their urine. If you’re experiencing consistent, hurtful urination, see a doctor.