According to the American Cancer Society, approximately 40 percent of men and women in the United States will contract cancer within their lifetimes. Given those odds, and the fact that the disease becomes exponentially more difficult to treat as it spreads, even the luckiest of people needs to be prepared to spot signs of cancer when they see them. Fortunately, while “every cancer type will have its own specific symptoms,” says Karen Selby, RN at The Mesothelioma Center, “most will share some common signs.”
Most of those signs, however, are not specific to cancer, and can appear under the guise of numerous other diseases and infections. Oftentimes, this means they go ignored, allowing a bad situation to get even worse. To remedy this, we’ve compiled a list of the most common cancer symptoms hiding in plain sight. If any cause concern, give your PCP a call. Safe is always better than sorry.
Usually, a cough is just a cough. However, it can also be a sign of lung cancer, particularly if it becomes persistent. When the tickle in your throat continues to nag, or comes along with other symptoms—such as blood in your saliva, shortness of breath, or chest pain—it’s time to see a doctor.
While a majority of breast lumps—around 8 out of 10—are benign, some can be much more serious. Specifically, they can denote the presence of breast cancer, the second most common form of cancer among women. While it’s important to have a doctor check out any kind of lumps found in the breasts, cancerous ones will often be more irregular in shape, as well as feel firmer than the surrounding breast tissue. In addition, they are often painless. Regardless, most doctors advise scheduling a visit as soon as a mass is found, regardless of its characteristics.
Unexplained Weight Loss
Unintended weight loss of ten pounds or more may sound great in theory, but can often be a sign of something amiss. In fact, it’s one of the most common signs of cancer, with 40 percent of patients in one study reporting having undergone unexplained weight loss before being diagnosed with the disease. Most often found in patients with stomach, pancreatic, or esophageal cancer, the changes could be due to either a loss of appetite or the body’s decreased ability to absorb nutrients.
An estimated 40 percent of fair-skinned people who live to be 65 will develop at least one skin cancer in their lifetime. Fortunately, due to the disease’s topical nature, it can often be recognized and treated before it is too late. One common symptom of basal cell- and squamous cell- carcinomas—the two most common types of skin cancer—are open sores that fail to heal. These sores will often also be fragile and prone to bleeding and may crust over and ooze. If they don’t go away, or continue to return, schedule a visit to your doctor.
Melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, most often appears as an innocent-looking, irregularly shaped mole. As opposed to the typical brown spots or growths which affect everyone, a growth of melanoma will often be asymmetrical, have an irregular border, and may be multiple different shades from tan to brown. It will also continue to grow over time, sometimes starting as a flat spot and gradually becoming elevated from the skin. While not every atypical mole is a melanoma, some warning signs include itching, bleeding, pain, or a bluish-black color.
Chronic pain, while often merely a part of life’s daily struggles, can also be a signal that a cancer is pressing upon bones, nerves, or organs within the body. The most common example is somatic pain caused by bone cancer. As a tumor grows into the bone tissue, it causes a deep, dull ache in the surrounding area. While the pain may originally only affect the body at night or when it is active, it will typically become more pervasive as the tumor grows.
Modern life can be exhausting. But chronic, all-body tiredness, while often not a lone symptom, may also be a sign of certain cancers. Leukemia and lymphoma, for example, disrupt the production of blood cells and cause anemia, which in turn leads to fatigue. Other cancers, by competing for nourishment with the body’s own cells, can zap its energy. If no amount of rest will put the pep back in your step, it’s time to see a doctor.
It can be easy to miss, but a small lump or hardness within the scrotum is typically the first sign of testicular cancer. If found early, it may be around the size of a pea of marble, but it can grow to be discernibly larger over time. In addition, a swelling or increased firmness of the testicle itself may also be a sign of the disease.
Trouble swallowing, or dysphagia, is one of the most common symptom of esophageal cancer. This often manifests in a feeling that something is stuck in the throat or chest, or even the sensation of choking on food. While it may begin as a mild difficulty, the problem will get worse over time as the cancer takes up more space within the esophagus, leaving less room for passing food products. In addition, increased saliva or mucus levels, produced to compensate for the difficulty passing food, may also be experienced.
Almost all cancers, once spread, will—like many diseases and infections—lead to fever at some point. This can be due to a variety of reasons, including an impaired immune system. However, certain cancers, like leukemia, lymphoma, kidney cancer, and bone cancer, can cause fevers even in their early stages. Importantly, these fevers can often be cyclical, and may go away for weeks before returning. So, if a fever lasts for longer than three days, or is continuously returning over a period of weeks, call a doctor.
Besides an uncomfortable sensation which we’ve felt at one point or another, bloating is also one of the first symptoms of ovarian cancer, a disease affecting one in every 77 women. This is due to a buildup of fluid, mostly formed of cancer cells, called ascites, within the abdomen. In order to distinguish between ordinary bloating and the more dangerous sort, a change of diet—and subsequent re-evaluation—can help detect the source of the bloat. In addition, if a period of bloating lasts for more than two weeks within a month, medical attention is necessary.
While there are five types of gynecological cancers that can affect women, only cervical cancer is regularly screened for. Therefore, it’s important to be cognizant of the signs and symptoms for other affected areas, such as uterine, vaginal, and vulvar cancer. One of the most common—and commonly ignored—symptoms is persistent genital itching. If the itch won’t go away with normal topical treatments, or comes along with thickened skin, sensitivity, or bleeding, it’s time to see a doctor.
Bleeding Between Menstruation
While cervical cancer was once the leading cause of cancer deaths for women in the U.S., it has thankfully seen its numbers diminish in the last forty years due to the increased popularity of the Pap test. However, there are still many symptoms of cervical cancer which go ignored, with patients thinking their cause is benign. The most common: vaginal bleeding between menstrual periods, or in postmenopausal women. Though it may be brushed off as a case of spotting, this can sometimes be a sign of invasive cervical cancer, and one which needs to be addressed immediately.
Lymph Node Swelling
Swelling of the lymph nodes—those bean-shaped things in the neck which produce disease-fighting white blood cells—can be the sign of many things, including, most commonly, infection. However, it can also be a sign of lymphoma, a cancer beginning in the lymphatic system, which for that reason disrupts its normal functioning. It can be difficult to determine the underlying cause of a particular swollen lymph node, but if it’s accompanied by another symptom—such as fever or weight loss—without any obvious signs of infection, it’s crucial to have a doctor evaluate.
According to the ACA, more than 51,000 people in the U.S. will be diagnosed with oral cancer in 2018. Frustratingly, many of the symptoms of oral cancer can be appear identical to other, less-threatening growths within the mouth. Cancerous growths, however, will typically begin as a flat patch of discoloration inside the mouth, on top of the tongue, or on the gums. Unlike canker sores, they also rarely cause pain, especially in the early stages. While the color, feel, and size of the growth may vary widely, cancerous kinds will be persistent in nature, while other, more benign sores will typically go away within weeks.
Though most heartburn is caused by food or drink (like a spicy margarita), some cases may be an early sign of esophageal cancer. Warning signs that it may be the latter are if it becomes a daily occurrence, or is regularly felt two or more times a week. In addition, untreated heartburn can eventually develop into GERD, or gastroesophageal reflux disease, a condition known to increase the risk of esophageal cancer in sufferers.
Because of its location deep in the stomach lining, stomach cancer is one of the most asymptomatic—and thus hardest to detect—cancers, with only one out of five cases being discovered before the disease has spread to other parts of the body. However, as the tumor grows, it is likely to cause stomach pains in the abdomen, above the navel. Especially if this comes combined with other symptoms—heartburn, bloating—it’s imperative to see a doctor sooner rather than later.
Changes in Bowel Movements
Affecting the final section of the digestive tract, the symptoms of colon cancer can frequently be found in abnormal bowel movements. Unfortunately, because of its highly personal nature, this is one of the subjects a patients is least likely to discuss with their physician. Some warning signs include changes of stool consistency or size lasting longer than a month, bloody stools, or the feeling that, even after emptying, the bowel is still full. Crucially, most colon cancers do not begin to show symptoms until later stages, making it all the more important to see a medical professional as soon as suspicion arises.
Anemia—a condition involving a lack of red blood cells which can cause fatigue, shortness of breath, and lightheadedness—is a side effect of many cancers. This is because the disease often slows down the body’s ability to make new blood cells, as well as to store iron. Certain cancers, however, such as those affecting the bone marrow or causing blood loss—leukemia, lymphoma, cervical, and vaginal, for example—are more prone than others to causing anemia, making its presence, if unexplained, an important warning sign.
While an excellent addition on love songs, hoarseness of the voice can sometimes signal a cancerous growth on the vocal cords. The most common cancerous cause of a hoarse voice is laryngeal cancer, which, due to its noticeable effects, is often caught quite quickly. However, other forms of cancer, such as those above the vocal cords (supraglottis) or below them (subglottis), won’t begin to affect the voice until they have reached the later stages. Either way, if a hoarse voice or a change in voice doesn’t resolve itself in two weeks or so, it’s time to see a doctor.
Changes in Urination
Bladder cancer, because it swiftly affects the urinary tract, can often be discovered quickly, but only if the sufferer is vigilant. In addition to bloody urine, the disease can cause a frequent need to urinate, a burning sensation during, and a weak stream. If left unchecked, these may eventually lead to a complete inability to urinate. Thus, if any of these symptoms present themselves, it’s crucial to see a doctor sooner rather than later.
While there are many things that cause night sweats, including nightmares, low blood sugar, or hyperthyroidism, waking up with soaked sheets may also be an early warning sign of many cancers. Especially if they occur frequently, and in combination with any other cancerous symptoms, they should be brought to a doctor’s attention immediately.
Though headaches are an extremely common phenomenon likely requiring no more than a few hours of silence to remedy, a persistent headache may be a sign of a brain tumor or a cancer in the spinal cord. One red flag that a headache is more dangerous than usual is if it is located somewhere that headaches had not been experienced before, or is caused by something unusual like a particular type of movement. If a headache doesn’t respond to typical treatments, or begins to cause vomiting or waking up at night, it’s important to discuss with a doctor.