As there are over 100 types of cancer, it is very difficult to narrow down signs and symptoms. The symptoms of brain cancer for example, will be completely different to bladder cancer, both of which will be different to skin cancer.
The signs and symptoms, says the American Cancer Society, will depend on several things, such as where the cancer is, how big it is, and how much it affects the organs and the tissues. A cancer that has spread can affect different parts of the body at the same time.
There are several cancers that have no symptoms until they are in a fairly advanced stage, such as pancreatic cancer. Also, many of the symptoms of cancer which are listed below, can also be symptoms of less serious diseases. If you have diarrhoea, you could have slight food poisoning, and you shouldn’t immediately assume that it is colorectal cancer, to name but one example.
One of the main points made by Cancer Research UK, is that you know your body, and if something isn’t normal for you, it is a good idea to go for a check-up. A change in the way your body functions should alert you.
Our bodies change with age, and no one aged 50 functions as they did when they were 20, but most of these changes are gradual. If you have never been regularly short of breath, or had a sore that didn’t heal, and now suddenly you do, it is worth checking it out. Any sudden change that persists for more than a week or two, even if it is small, requires medical attention.
One of the chief reasons why early detection is so important is that treatment works best when cancer is found early. The American Cancer Society gives this striking example: The 5-year survival rate (percentage of people who live at least 5 years after diagnosis) at this early stage is around 98%. Once melanoma has spread to other parts of the body, the 5-year survival rate drops to about 16%.
The symptoms of cancer can include one or more of the following:
- Unusual lumps or swellings that change in size, or harden, or cause a feeling of roughness on the skin above should be examined. Lumps in the breast, or in the testicles, the stomach, the chest, the groin or the armpit should never be ignored.
- Unusual breast changes. These include changes in shape, colour or feel of the breast, or a change in skin texture or a nipple change.
- Breathlessness and/or fatigue. Sudden unexplained and persistent breathlessness and/or fatigue should be taken seriously.
- Unexplained weight loss. Many people’s weight fluctuates slightly, but if you suddenly notice your clothing is a size or two too big, and you cannot think of a reason, it needs to be investigated.
- Persistent diarrhoea. Even a slight change that lasts for more than 4 – 6 weeks is cause for concern.
- Blood in your urine or in your stools. You might have piles or an infection, but it may be more serious.
- Persistent heartburn/and or bloating. This can be very painful and should not be ignored.
- Sores on the skin or mouth that do not heal. Even if these are painless, they should be examined.
- Heavy sweating at night. This can be normal for menopausal women, but can also be a sign of cancer.
- Ongoing pain. If you have unexplained pain that carries on for more than 4 weeks, you should go to the doctor.
- Swallowing difficulties and/or a croaky voice.
- Persistent cough/ coughing up blood. A cough that continues for more than three weeks must be examined, as should any instances of coughing up blood.
- A mole or a change in appearance of an existing mole.
- Persistent headaches or persistent nausea and vomiting.
- A low-grade fever that does not go away.
Risk factors for cancer
Image: Patient looking at lung radiography from Shutterstock