Cancer symptoms

This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by

Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science

This page was updated on June 22, 2022.

Why does cancer cause symptoms?

Cancer may cause symptoms for a variety of reasons, depending on its location, size and proximity to other structures, as well as the body's reaction. Possible explanations for cancer symptoms include:

  • The cancer is putting pressure on organs, nerves, blood vessels or other structures.
  • The cancer is using the body's energy supply, leading to fatigue.
  • The cancer triggers the immune system to react abnormally.
  • The cancer releases chemicals that change the body's natural balance.

The early warning signs of cancer may be difficult to detect because the symptoms may be similar to less serious conditions, such as the flu. Also, some cancers, such as lung or pancreatic cancer, may not show warning signs in early stages. Many cancers share common early warning signs, while some are specific to certain cancers.

This article will cover:

General early warning signs of cancer

  • Fatigue
  • Unexplained weight loss/gain
  • Fever
  • Pain that does not go away
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea, vomiting
  • Skin changes, such as a rash, redness, tenderness or swelling
  • Blood in the stool, urine, semen or sputum
  • Persistent cough or hoarseness
  • Difficulty emptying the bowel or bladder

Many symptoms share characteristics of other, non-cancerous conditions. If the patient experiences persistent symptoms or other health changes, it’s important to see a doctor as soon as possible.

Cancer symptoms in men and women

Although men are more likely to develop cancer than women, many common cancers, such as lung, colorectal, bladder, melanoma, leukemia and lymphoma, and their symptoms may occur in either gender. Certain cancers, however, are gender specific and may cause unique symptoms.

Cancer symptoms in men

Cancers unique to men affect the male reproductive system—the prostate, testicles and penis. Symptoms of these cancers in men may include:

  • Difficulty urinating (in advanced-stage prostate cancer)
  • Painful urination or ejaculation
  • Blood in the urine or semen
  • Lumps, growths or physical changes in the penis or testicles
  • Pain in the groin, abdomen or lower back

Learn more about men and cancer

Cancer symptoms in women

Breast cancer and cancers specific to women may affect the breasts and the female reproductive system. Symptoms of these cancers may include:

  • A breast lump or growth
  • Red, itchy or swollen breasts
  • Changes in the appearance of the breasts
  • Nipple discharge
  • Vaginal discharge or bleeding
  • Abdominal pain
  • Pain during intercourse
  • Difficulty urinating
  • Bloating or a feeling of fullness

Learn more about women and cancer

Specific cancer symptoms

The following are symptoms typically associated with certain cancer types:

Breast cancer: Common symptoms of breast cancer may include physical changes in one or both breasts—such as swelling, redness, flaky skin, nipple discharge, a lump or growth, pain, swelling or tenderness under the arm.

Colorectal cancer: Common symptoms of colorectal cancer include constipation and/or diarrhea, blood in the stool or bleeding from the rectum, cramps or abdominal pain, a bloated or full feeling, and thin, ribbon-like stool. Other common gastrointestinal cancer symptoms include gas pain, changes in bowel/bladder habits, anemia and/or jaundice.

Prostate cancer: Common symptoms of prostate cancer include blood in the semen or urine, difficulty getting an erection, and painful ejaculation, and in advanced stages, urinary symptoms may include difficulty urinating, burning or pain during urination or incontinence.

Gynecologic: Common gynecologic cancer symptoms include abnormal vaginal bleeding (after menopause, between periods, following sexual intercourse), pain during intercourse, pelvic/back pain, pain on urination, and/or watery, white or pinkish vaginal discharge.

Head and neck cancer: Common symptoms of head and neck cancers include persistent pain, difficulty swallowing, voice changes, mouth sores, dry mouth, changes in appearance, and/or taste changes.

Blood cancers: Common hematologic cancer symptoms include flu-like symptoms, fever, chills, joint/bone pain, anemia, night sweats, lymph node swelling, itching, persistent cough, shortness of breath, abdominal discomfort, headaches, easy bruising or bleeding, and/or frequent infections.

Skin cancer: Common skin cancer symptoms include a change in a mole's size, shape and color in the form of asymmetry, border or color irregularities or diameter (larger than 1/4 inch), itchiness, pain and/or oozing around the affected area.

Lung cancer: Common symptoms of lung cancer include a persistent cough, pain in the chest area, shortness of breath, hoarseness, wheezing, coughing up blood, blood in phlegm or mucus, neck or facial swelling, and/or headaches.

Metastatic cancer symptoms

If the patient has been diagnosed with cancer, cancer cells may spread to other parts of the body. This process is called metastasis, and it may occur before the initial diagnosis or during or after treatment.

Many cancers, including melanoma, breast, lung, prostate, colorectal and other common cancers, have a tendency to metastasize in certain cases. The most common locations for metastatic cancer to spread are the liver, lungs, bone and brain. When cancer spreads to a new location, it is still named for the location of the primary tumor. For instance, breast cancer that has spread to the brain is called metastatic breast cancer to the brain.

How do I know if my cancer has spread?

Symptoms of metastatic cancer may depend on where in the body the cancer has spread. For instance:

  • If the cancer has spread to the bone, symptoms may include joint pain or fractures.
  • If the cancer has spread to the brain, symptoms may include headaches, speech difficulties, blurred vision or dizziness.
  • If the cancer has spread to the liver, symptoms may include jaundice, and bloating or swelling in the stomach.
  • If the cancer has spread to the lungs, symptoms may include shortness of breath or a persistent cough.

An accurate diagnosis is critical to determining whether the cancer has spread and to developing a personalized treatment plan designed to meet the patient's needs.

Learn more about metastasis

Diagnosing cancer

It’s important to consult with a medical professional if any symptoms of cancer occur. A doctor will conduct a medical evaluation, including diagnostic tests to first confirm the presence of disease and then, if relevant, to identify the correct tumor type, location, extent and stage. An accurate cancer diagnosis helps doctors determine an appropriate treatment approach.

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Show references
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