Common cancer symptoms
Cancer, like other illnesses can cause symptoms. Symptoms are changes such as a persistent cough, the sudden appearance of a lump or unexplained weight loss.
Treatment for cancer can be more effective when it is found early so it is important to keep an eye out for any changes in your body. These changes usually don’t mean you have cancer, but it’s important to see your GP if you notice any potential symptoms.
Unexplained ache or pain
Pain can be a way our bodies tell us something is wrong. Aches and pains may not mean anything serious but unexplained pain may be a sign of something serious.
Persistent headache or blurred vision
Occasional headaches are common and generally don’t need medical attention. However, if you are experiencing two or more headaches a week, are taking pain relief for headaches most days or your headaches become disabling, you should see your doctor.
People can experience blurred or double vision in one or both eyes and this may be caused by eye conditions such as difficulty focusing your eyesight, an eye infection, astigmatism, dry eye syndrome, cataracts or an injury to the eye so you should consult your doctor or optometrist. Blurred vision can also be caused by diabetes, migraine, stroke or a brain tumour. It is important to seek medical attention if the blurred vision persists or appears suddenly.
Weakness in limbs and dizziness
Feeling dizzy can be caused by high or low blood pressure, stress or not eating for a long time. However, if you feel lightheaded or dizzy for more than a couple of days you should talk to your doctor as it may be a symptom of primary central nervous system (CNS) tumours or brain metastases (when cancer cells have spread from their primary site to the brain). Persistent weakness in your limbs may also be a sign of CNS tumours or brain metastases.
Abnormal sweating, especially at night
Sweating at night may be a side effect of some medications, be caused by an infection or be experienced by women in menopause. However, excessive sweating at night can also be a sign of cancer.
Unexplained weight loss
A lot of people experience small changes in weight over time, however if you lose a lot of weight without trying to, you should talk to your GP.
Unusual lump or swelling
Any persistent lumps or swelling in any part of your body should be taken seriously. For example, a lump in the neck may be a symptom of a head or neck cancer.
Unusual breast changes
A lump, lumpiness or thickening, especially if only in one breast, could be a sign of breast cancer. However, these are not the only changes to be aware of. You should be aware of any changes to the size, shape or feel of your breasts as well as any redness, skin changes or pain in the breasts. Other possible signs of cancer include a change to the nipples such as in shape, crusting sores or ulcers, a clear or bloody discharge or a nipple that turns in when it used to stick out.
Anyone can get breast cancer so men as well as women should contact their GP if they notice any unusual changes.
Seizures (fits or uncontrolled movements of the body) can be caused by a number of conditions such as epilepsy, use of recreational (illegal) drugs, alcohol, high fever, infection or a head injury. Seizures can also be caused by brain tumours. If you have two or more seizures, or have one without explanation, see your doctor.
Unexplained bleeding or blood
Unexplained bleeding can be caused by something less serious than cancer but you should check with your doctor.
Blood in your faeces or urine or coughing up a vomiting blood could be a sign of cancer.
Unexplained vaginal bleeding, including between periods, after sex or after menopause should be investigated by your doctor.
Feeling more tired than usual may be due to stress or not sleeping well but extreme tiredness without explanation can be an early sign of cancer. If you are worried about your level of tiredness, you should talk to your GP.
Sore that won’t heal
A spot or sore that doesn’t heal should be seen by a doctor as it may be a sign of cancer.
New mole or changes to a mole
While most moles are harmless, the appearance of any new spots or changes in colour, thickness or shape over a period of weeks to months can be a sign of skin cancer.
Other skin changes
If you notice any unusual change in a patch of skin or a nail you should have it checked by a doctor.
If you are having difficulty swallowing and the problem persists, you should talk to your doctor as some medical conditions can make it difficult to swallow.
Loss of appetite
Not feeling hungry can be caused by many conditions such as the flu but can also be a sign of cancer. If your loss of appetite persists you should see your doctor.
Heartburn or indigestion
You may experience some discomfort after eating a large, spicy or fatty meal but if you have heartburn or indigestion frequently, or if it is very painful, see your GP.
Coughs are common with some medical conditions such as colds and flu. If you have an unexplained cough that doesn’t go away in a few weeks or gets worse, it may be a sign of cancer so you should get it checked.
Persistent sore throat
The common cold and flu viruses can cause a sore throat, as can other viral infections. Bacterial infections such as Streptococcus pyogenes can also cause a sore throat. However, if you have a persistent sore throat with no explanation, you should see your doctor as cancerous tumours of the throat, tongue or larynx (voice box) can also cause a sore throat.
Croaky voice or hoarseness
Having a cold can result in a croaky or hoarse voice. If it doesn’t go away on its own, you should talk to your doctor.
Shortness of breath
Shortness of breath can be caused by an allergic reaction, asthma, pneumonia or heart or lung conditions. If you have persistent shortness of breath let your doctor know.
Mouth ulcer that won’t heal
The most common cause of mouth ulcers is injury and in most cases they are harmless and don’t need treatment. However, if a mouth ulcer doesn’t clear up after 14 days, or if you get them frequently, you should see your doctor or dentist.
Changes in bowel habits
It is important to get to know your body and what is normal for you, including your bowel habits. Changes in bowel habits can include diarrhea or constipation or more frequent bowel movements. These symptoms can be caused by a number of conditions including cancer, so it is important to see your doctor.
Blood in stool
If you notice spots of red blood on toilet paper, drops in the toilet, blood in your stool (poo) or dark, tarry stools, it could be caused by a number of things such as hemorrhoids, bowel infections colorectal polyps, inflammatory bowel diseases or cancer such as bowel or anal cancer. If you notice blood in your stool or have dark, almost black stools, see your doctor to have it checked.
Change in bladder habits
If you notice any changes in your urination (peeing) you should talk to your doctor. Changes can include having to urinate more often or not being able to urinate when you feel the urge or experiencing pain when urinating.
Blood in urine
Blood in urine can be caused by infections (such as bladder, urinary tract or kidney), stones (such as kidney stones), cysts, blood-thinning medication or kidney disease. In rarer cases, blood in the urine may be a symptom of kidney, bladder or prostate cancer.
It is not uncommon to experience a swollen or bloated stomach every now and then. This can be caused by the good you eat or lactose intolerance. However, if bloating persists, is severe or is experienced with other symptoms such as constipation or diarrhoea, you should see your doctor so they can rule out something more serious such as cancer.
Should I see my doctor?
If you notice any changes to your body that you can’t explain, or experience any symptoms, you should see your doctor. Changes and symptoms are often a sign of something other than cancer but if it is cancer, it is important to find it early.
Why is early detection and diagnosis so important?
Treatment can be more effective when cancer is found early so keep an eye out for any changes to your body.
Screening is also one of the most effective ways to detect early signs of cancer. National screening programs are available in Australia to detect breast cancer, bowel cancer and cervical cancer . So, if you have received the bowel kit, take the test today. And if you have received an invitation to have a mammogram or cervical screening test make the appointment today. Screening saves lives.
Can cancer be prevented?
At least one in three cancer cases could be prevented and the number of deaths could be significantly reduced through lifestyle factors. These include:
- not smoking or quitting smoking
- limiting alcohol
- eating a healthy, balanced diet
- avoiding excess weight gain
- being physically active
- being SunSmart.
Find more information on specific types of cancer