20 Most Commonly Overlooked Cancer Symptoms, According to Doctors
Keep an eye out for these subtle symptoms that often go unaddressed.
While it's good news that the overall rate of survival for those with cancer has increased in recent years, the American Cancer Society (ACS) says that the rate of diagnosis has risen as well. In particular, rates of new cases of melanoma, thyroid cancer, endometrial cancer, and pancreatic cancer all rose in 2019, the ACS says. Worse yet, due to the subtlety of certain cancer symptoms, many patients aren't diagnosed until it's too late. To help you avoid such a scenario, we asked doctors to identify some of the most common cancer symptoms that often get overlooked or ignored.
Though you might be thrilled to see the number on the scale go down, if you're not actively trying to lose weight, it could be a symptom that you're dealing with cancer.
"Many patients I see present with weight loss of 10 or 15 pounds," says Anton Bilchik, MD, professor of surgery and chief of gastrointestinal research at the John Wayne Cancer Institute at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California. "They don't pay attention to it because they feel good about losing weight. The concern is when somebody's not trying to lose weight, but are losing it anyway."
If your stomach seems to be persistently protruding out of virtually nowhere, it's time to talk to your doctor. According to Bilchik, abdominal bloating is a common symptom of pancreatic cancer, and can also be associated with cancers of the uterus, colon, liver, and stomach.
If you notice your skin color taking on a orange or yellow hue, it's possible that you could be dealing with a serious health issue—specifically, a tumor that's blocking the bile duct and causing bile to enter the bloodstream.
"That's typically a bad sign because that usually indicates a more advanced cancer," Bilchik says. "However, some people do have smaller cancers that block the bile duct, too, and they can be treated with surgery."
While having a cough is hardly uncommon, if you have one that simply won't go away, it's time to get a medical professional involved. According to Santosh Kesari, MD, a board-certified neurologist and neuro-oncologist at the John Wayne Cancer Institute, a chronic cough is often one of the first symptoms of lung cancer.
While it is extremely common for adults in the U.S. to experience acid reflux, a sudden onset of the condition without any changes in your diet should not be ignored, Bilchik says. Why? Tumors of the stomach, esophagus, and liver can all cause sudden-onset acid reflux, he says.
Difficulty remembering things
Though it's true that many people find themselves being more forgetful as they age, if your memory troubles come on suddenly, it could be a sign that something's amiss. According to Kesari, one of the first symptoms people with brain tumors notice is memory loss that's associated with neither age nor injury.
Yellowing of the eyes
If the whites of your eyes have taken on a yellowish tint, this could be the result of jaundice—which can be a common symptom in the early stages of pancreatic cancer, according to Pancreatic Cancer UK.
Experiencing persistent pain or discomfort in your midsection is not something to be ignored, as this is a common symptom of stomach cancer. "If you don't typically have an issue with bloating and abdominal pain that's not getting better, that's a warning signal," says Bilchik.
Loss of appetite
A sudden disinterest in food or a lack of appetite is another common sign of stomach cancer, as well as a general sign of many other potential health problems, Bilchick says. "If someone suddenly doesn't have an appetite for food or wine, there's generally a reason. That in itself may warrant a workup."
Those new, slow-to-heal marks on your skin could be more than just your average scrape. Irregular moles or spots, according to Kesari, can often be forms of skin cancer like melanoma, or basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas, while persistent rashes may be a sign of lymphoma or leukemia.
Our personalities may change with some frequency throughout our lives, but if that change comes out of nowhere, it's time to check in with your doctor, says Kesari. Sudden personality changes can be a symptom of a brain tumor—and even if they're not, they're well worth investigating before your sudden irritability or anger has any negative impact on your life or the lives of those around you.
Everyone deals with a headache from time to time, but if yours are frequent and severe, they might be a symptom of a much larger problem, Kesari says. In fact, having chronic headaches is one of the main symptoms of a brain tumor.
Weakness on one side of your body
Experiencing sudden weakness on one side of the body is often associated with having a stroke. However, even if your doctor rules out the possibility of one, that doesn't mean there isn't some other serious health problem potentially at play. Brain tumors can cause many of the same symptoms as strokes, including weakness relegated to one side of the body, Kesari says.
Numbness of your extremities
A little numbness after coming in from the cold? No big deal. Feeling numb in your extremities with no explanation, however, warrants a trip to the doctor. According to Kesari, brain tumors can often cause numbness in the extremities, as can tumors of the pancreas, colon, and any metastases that cause nerve damage.
Sudden speech problems
If you're noticing that you're speaking strangely with no apparent cause, it's imperative that you address the issue with your doctor, as this could be a sign of a variety of problems—including brain cancer, according to the Cancer Treatment Centers of America.
With a hectic schedule and a stressful career, it's not exactly rare to find yourself exhausted at the end of a long day. Experiencing extreme fatigue on a regular basis for no particular reason, however, is far less common, and far more concerning.
"Atypical fatigue that you can't explain through depression, diet, exercise, whatever, especially if it persists for several weeks" could be a symptom of a variety of cancers, says Jack Jacoub, MD, medical director of MemorialCare Cancer Institute.
A testicular mass
Testicular cancer—one of the most common cancers found in adult men under 35—often first becomes evident via a testicular mass, Jacoub says. And since time is of the essence when it comes to treatment, it's essential to get it checked out ASAP.
Unexplained bleeding—particularly from your nose—and bruising can often be connected with "low blood counts, as well as bone marrow disorders and leukemia," Jacoub says.
Swollen lymph nodes
Virtually any illness or infection can cause swollen lymph nodes—including cancer, which is why they are so important to have examined. "Swollen lymph nodes that are not tender can be explained by an infection, but they do need to be checked out if they don't resolve," says Jacoub.
If you have a fever that doesn't go away, or is becoming worse, it's important you see your doctor. According to the American Cancer Society, a fever is an extremely common symptom of most types of cancer. And while it is often the side effect of cancer treatment, in some cases it can be an early sign of blood cancers like leukemia or lymphoma.