Spotting Common Cancer Symptoms

Different types of cancer display different cancer symptoms, but some warning signs are common among various kinds.

Worried about a strange, persistent pain in your abdomen, an unusual lump, or a feeling of utter exhaustion? Certain types of cancer have specific warning signs, while others may mimic common illnesses like the flu. These signs may all seem like minor, harmless ailments, but taken together they could point to cancer.

Cancer Symptoms: Warning Signs for Men

Many types of cancer, including prostate cancer, may not cause signs or symptoms in their early stages. If you’re at high risk for prostate cancer — for example, if you’re of African-American descent or have a family history of the disease — you should talk with your doctor about getting a prostate specific antigen (PSA) test. Elevated PSA levels may indicate cancer. Other warning signs that something may be wrong include bone pain, leg swelling, and trouble urinating.

“The most common symptom for men is a change in their [urination],” says Michael Fisch, MD, PhD, chair of the department of general oncology at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

Men should pay attention if they have trouble passing urine or they have a weak urine stream, “particularly when those changes are rapid in onset over a period of a few weeks,” adds Dr. Fisch. Though these changes could be indications of an enlarged prostate, and not prostate cancer, “you don’t know until you get it checked out,” Fisch cautions.

Cancer Symptoms: Warning Signs for Women

Breast cancer is the most common cancer women face. Breast self-exams can spot unusual lumps, which should be taken very seriously, says Fisch. Any time you feel an abnormality, bump, or lump in the breast, you should see your doctor for a breast exam. A mammogram or other imaging test may also be needed to determine the cause.

Cancer Symptoms: Pain

“The most common kind of symptom that leads people to a cancer diagnosis is pain — an abnormal, painful sensation,” says Fisch. But it can be difficult to differentiate between cancer pain and a more routine pain because pain is common — something we feel often throughout our life. “It is part of our ordinary experience to encounter pains now and again,” Fisch says.

How can you tell the difference between everyday pain and pain that could be a possible cancer symptom? “The idea is to try to pay attention to pains that are either much more severe or much more persistent over time than you might expect based on your ordinary experience,” says Fisch.

Signs that your pain may be due to cancer:

  • It can’t be attributed to something specific, like an injury or overexertion
  • It persists and does not improve
  • It is severe
  • It interferes with sleep
  • It is coupled with other minor symptoms

Cancer Symptoms: Fatigue and Weight Loss

Feeling unusually tired without being able to pinpoint a cause — you’re getting enough sleep, sleeping well, and are not sick — is another warning sign that cancer may be invading your body. It feels somewhat like the fatigue associated with the flu, notes Fisch, but without other flu symptoms.

As for weight loss, if you’re dieting and losing weight relatively slowly, like a pound or two a week, this is probably cause for celebration. But if weight loss happens very quickly or without much effort, it could be a warning sign. Weight loss that is just a little too easy or too quick can be a sign of cancer, says Fisch.

Cancer Symptoms: Add It All Up

Individually, these symptoms may be difficult to notice and may not even be a cause for concern. But if you notice a few small warning signs — maybe unexpected weight loss, feeling run-down or fatigued, or experiencing some strange pain — they may indicate that it’s best to get to a doctor for a screening. This is especially important, says Fisch, for people who already know they’re at risk for certain cancers, whether it’s because of family history, lifestyle choices, or age.

You don’t need to be paranoid about every little illness, ache, or pain, but you do need to listen to your body. If you listen carefully enough, you may catch those early cancer symptoms before real damage is done.

Last Updated:12/29/2011

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