Catching cancer as early as possible is vital to your chances of beating it.
When cancer is caught in the early stages, health care providers have better treatment options available. The survival rate for patients whose cancer was caught early is much higher than for those whose cancer wasn’t caught until the later stages.
One way to help make sure any cancer is detected early is to get any cancer screenings recommended for you.
Another important way you can help to catch any cancer early is to know what to look for.
Know the signs and symptoms of cancer
What does cancer look like? What should you look for? Many different types of cancer can impact different parts of the body. That means there are a lot of possible signs and symptoms.
Many of the early signs of cancer can be harmless. So, how can you tell if you have cancer? Well, there’s no way to know on your own. You’re going to need to speak with your health care provider.
“One isolated symptom doesn’t necessarily mean you have cancer,” said Mary Stapel, MD, a physician at OSF HealthCare. “But if any symptoms persist past a couple of weeks, that’s when you should talk to your primary care provider.”
It’s also important to remember that some cancers early on have no visible signs – which is why getting your cancer screenings is so important. Screenings can often reveal signs of cancer before any symptoms begin to show themselves.
Common cancer warning signs
If any of the symptoms listed here persist beyond a couple of weeks, speak to your primary care provider (PCP).
Lumps, bruises and other skin changes
If you notice any unusual lumps, bumps, swelling, easy bruising or other unexplained new markings on your skin, you should speak with your PCP. Changes to your skin are part of what Dr. Stapel calls a “big category” for signs of cancer.
“If there is any easy bruising or new bleeding and you’re not on blood thinners, that’s something to monitor,” Dr. Stapel said. “You may just see red specks, not even full-on bruise. Even jaundice can be a sign of cancer.”
Weight gain or weight loss
“Cancer can decrease your appetite, leading to unplanned weight loss,” Dr. Stapel said. “But, with some cancers, we see weight gain because the tumor compresses your digestive tract, which causes abdominal bloating as you retain fluids.
“Weight loss is more common, but quick weight gain also should be looked into.”
Having no appetite, feeling nauseous or vomiting often could all be signs of gastrointestinal cancer.
Fatigue is natural, but if you can’t shake it with some restful sleep, it might be a sign something is wrong.
Trouble regulating your temperature
Fevers, night sweats, feeling flushed or feeling cold – any persistent difficulty with regulating your body’s temperature can be suspicious.
Any persistent change in your typical bladder or bowel movements should be evaluated by a health care provider. If you find yourself unusually constipated, your stool’s not the normal size, color or consistency, if it’s pencil-thin or there is blood in your stool, those are all possible signs of cancer.
How is cancer detected?
Also, blood in your urine or pain urinating should be checked out.
Coughing up blood is one possible sign of cancer, and for women, post-menopausal bleeding can also be a sign.
Throat pain or coughing
Hoarseness or choking on food could be a sign there is an issue with your head or neck. Also if you develop a persistent new cough or shortness of breath, it could be a sign of cancer.
“Many cancers don’t present with pain initially,” Dr. Stapel said. “But, headaches, breast pain or pain under the arms or in the groin where lymph nodes might enlarge – those are reasons to seek further care.”
If you develop sudden double or blurry vision – especially if the change is accompanied by new headaches – you need to speak to your doctor.
Last Updated: February 10, 2023