15 potential cancer warning signs you may overlook

What are the signs or symptoms of cancer you may be ignoring?
Some symptoms sometimes associated with cancer are usually not caused by cancer at all. The key is being aware of changes in your body that just don’t seem right to you.

About four in 10 Americans who live to see their 80th birthday will develop cancer at some point. About one in five will die from it. Research shows you may be able to avoid becoming one of those statistics by making healthy lifestyle choices, such as eating a nutritious diet, maintaining a healthy weight, exercising, limiting alcohol consumption and exposure to the sun, and not using tobacco products. Getting recommended routine cancer screening tests may also help catch the disease early when there are more treatment options.

But even if you’re living a healthy lifestyle, you should be aware of cancer warning signs and symptoms and seek prompt medical attention to detect cancer early and minimize your risks. The key is to act early and not wait, hoping the symptoms go away on their own or because you may be embarrassed to see a doctor or don’t want to incur any unnecessary medical expenses.

“It's human nature to kind of downplay symptoms,” says Anthony Perre, MD, Intake Physician at City of Hope Atlanta. But early detection can lead to better outcomes in a cancer diagnosis, he notes.

“You should talk to your doctor about any symptom that is new to you or has not changed,” he says. “And just because a symptom may have gone away or resolved itself doesn’t mean everything is OK. So, talk to your doctor about that as well.”

In this article we will list some common symptoms that could be early-stage cancer warning signs and when you should seek a professional medical opinion.

If you’re interested in getting screened for cancer or if you’ve been diagnosed with cancer and want a second opinion, call us or chat online with a member of our team.

When to see a doctor about a symptom

Some symptoms sometimes associated with cancer, such as pain, heartburn or a lump or mole, are usually not caused by cancer at all. These symptoms and others are common and may be triggered by benign conditions. The key is being aware of changes in your body that just don’t seem right to you. It’s important to trust your instincts, especially if you are an older adult, and consider seeking medical advice.

When you experience common symptoms, you should seek medical advice if:

  • Your symptoms persist for more than a few weeks or get progressively worse
  • You have unusual lumps or bumps that don’t go away

Remember it’s better to err on the side of caution. So, if you have any doubts, see your doctor, especially if you have a family history or other increased risks for developing cancer.

Potential cancer warning signs and symptoms

Unexplained weight loss

Rapid and unexplained weight loss of 10 pounds or more or loss of appetite may indicate cancer, in particular esophageal, lung or stomach cancers.

It is common for those diagnosed with cancer to experience weight loss. Even if you are eating your regular diet certain types of cancer may deprive your cells of necessary nutrients resulting in weight loss.

If you’re not trying to lose weight and you drop more than a few pounds in a short period of time, see your doctor.

Recurrent fever and/or night sweats

Fever is a common symptom of infection or illness, such as the flu. By itself, a fever may not be cause for concern. But you should see a health care professional if you spike a fever that is accompanied by chronic night sweats over several weeks and it can’t be explained by an illness, or you have frequent infections one right after the other.

New or unexplained pain

Persistent pain anywhere in the body that doesn’t have an obvious cause — like an injury or illness and doesn’t respond to regular treatments — should be evaluated by a doctor.

For instance, pain in the abdomen or pain, swelling or a feeling of heaviness in the scrotum may be a symptom of prostate, bladder, testicular or penile cancer. Unusual pain or sensitivity in the breasts may be a sign of breast cancer in women or men and should be checked out by a clinician.

Persistent heartburn or indigestion

If you don’t usually have heartburn or indigestion, but suddenly start to experience these symptoms regularly and they’re not going away, see a doctor.

They may be signs of cancers that affect the digestive system, such as colorectal or stomach cancer.

Bloating, persistent stomach or abdominal pain or nausea

Abdominal discomfort and pain — including bloating, a distended stomach or feeling full quickly when eating as well as nausea — may indicate a digestive system cancer like liver or pancreatic cancer as well as gynecologic cancers like ovarian cancer in women.

Mouth sores that won’t heal

If you have sores, lesions or white patches on your lips, tongue, gums or elsewhere in your mouth or throat that don’t go away, be sure to get them checked, especially if you use tobacco or drink heavily. These symptoms could indicate oral cancer.

Sometimes white patches in the mouth are precancerous sores caused by a condition called leukoplakia, which may develop into cancer, if untreated.

Changes in urinary or bowel habits

If you have constipation or diarrhea persistently for several weeks or more frequent or painful urination or bowel movements, make an appointment to see your doctor.

While changes in bowel habits could be a symptom of inflammatory bowel disease such as Crohn’s disease, they may also be a sign of colon or stomach cancer.

Changes in urination, too, like pain when urinating, frequency and a weak stream could signal a urinary tract infection, an enlarged prostate or prostate or bladder cancers.

Blood in the urine or stool

If you notice blood in your urine or in your stool, which may appear black, tarry, or red, see your healthcare provider. Blood in your stool may indicate inflammatory bowel disease, ulcerative colitis or a cancer of the digestive system. Blood in the urine may signal prostate or bladder cancers.

Unexplained lumps or changes to the skin

If you have an infection like a cold, you may notice lumps in your neck or throat due to swollen lymph nodes. Be sure to have the symptoms evaluated by a doctor if they persist after you’ve recovered from your illness, or if you notice unusual lumps or swelling elsewhere on your body, like your armpit or testes, without a known cause like an infection,

Swelling or lumps in these areas may be signs of a genitourinary cancer like prostate or testicular cancer in men or breast cancer in women or men.

Bumps or changes to the color, size or shape of or new freckles, moles or warts also should be checked out since they may indicate skin cancer.

Changes to the color of your skin such as jaundice or a yellow cast, may be caused by an infection or liver disease, but may also be a symptom of pancreatic cancer or a cancer that has spread to the liver. See your doctor if you notice change to your skin coloration.

Trouble swallowing

If you feel like food is getting stuck in your throat when you eat or you have trouble swallowing for more than two weeks, see your doctor. This symptom could be a sign of throat, lung or stomach cancer.

A cough or hoarseness that won’t go away

A dry, hacking cough that lasts longer than two weeks, especially if you are coughing up blood or a bloody discharge, may be a sign of lung cancer and should be checked by a doctor.

Also, see a doctor if you are experiencing persistent hoarseness or a breathy, raspy or strained voice when you speak, particularly if you also are having difficulty swallowing or pain in your neck or throat. These could be symptoms of thyroid or throat cancers.

Irregular periods or pelvic pain

If you are experiencing irregular or abnormal vaginal bleeding, especially if you are post-menopausal, unusual vaginal discharge or persistent pelvic pain or pain during sex, have it checked out by a health care provider.

These symptoms could be a sign of gynecologic cancers like cervical, ovarian, uterine or vaginal cancers.

Persistent headache

A headache that doesn’t respond to over-the-counter or prescribed pain medications and lasts more than two weeks should be assessed by a doctor. In addition, blurred or double vision, hearing changes, facial drooping, seizures or other neurological symptoms should be evaluated. These could be warning signs of a brain tumor or brain cancers.

Excessive bruising

If you have a lot of bruises in unusual places on your body that aren’t caused by injuries or from bumping into something, they could be a sign of certain blood cancers. See a doctor to get them checked.

Persistent fatigue

If your energy level has plummeted and, regardless of how much you sleep or relax, you just can’t seem to get your energy back, see a doctor to determine if this may be a sign of leukemia or lymphoma.

Be sure to note whether you also are experiencing muscle weakness or confusion, since this may indicate other types of cancers, which impact hormone levels or cause internal bleeding like colon or stomach cancer and may contribute to persistent fatigue.

If you’re interested in getting screened for cancer or if you’ve been diagnosed with cancer and want a second opinion, call us or chat online with a member of our team.