Cancer warning signs: the 13 symptoms experts recommend looking out for

Detecting the disease early can significantly increase the chance of survival

A consultant examines a mammogram. There are warning signs women can look out for to ensure breast cancer is detected early. PA
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Cancer is the leading cause of death globally, the World Health Organisation says, killing almost 10 million people each year.

While about one in six deaths are due to cancer, many forms of the disease can be cured if they are detected early and treatment begins promptly.

Cancer Research UK (Cruk) says 92 per cent of people will survive bowel cancer for five years or more if it is diagnosed in the earliest stage, but the five-year survival rate for patients diagnosed in the final stage, stage four, is only 10 per cent.

Yet, according to a survey by the polling organisation YouGov, the results of which were released this month by Cruk, slightly fewer than half of people contacted their GP within six months of experiencing a symptom that could indicate cancer.

Early detection is vital

“Spotting cancer early is vital if more people are to survive and the first step in that process is getting help for a possible cancer symptom,” Michelle Mitchell, Cruk’s chief executive, said in a statement.

To encourage people to be more aware and to get themselves checked where necessary, the organisation has highlighted several cancer warning signs.

While something much less serious may be the cause of symptoms, the organisation recommends getting medical attention in case cancer is the reason.

Here are 13 warning signs to look out for.

1. Unexplained weight loss

Unexpected weight loss is a cause for further investigation. PA

Significant weight loss without an obvious reason, such as diet, exercise or stress, may be a sign of certain types of cancer and should be investigated.

2. Heavy night sweats

Infections, some medications and the menopause may result in night sweats but cancers such as leukaemia and lymphoma can lead to heavy, drenching night sweats.

3. Unusual lumps or swelling

Areas such as the armpit, breast, groin and testicles should be checked often for lumps, and any persistent lumps or swellings anywhere on the body, including in these areas and the stomach or chest, deserve medical attention.

4. Bloating

The UK’s National Health Service advises people to see their doctor if they experience bloating for three weeks or more. Bloating that comes and goes is also a concern. Ovarian cancer is a possible cause.

5. Moles or other skin changes

A new mole, or an existing one that changes shape, size or colour, or bleeds or oozes, or itches or becomes crusty or flaky, should be checked out, as should spots, warts or sores that fail to heal. Medical attention should also be sought if a patch of skin or a nail changes in an unusual way.

6. Indigestion or difficulty swallowing

Various cancers can lead to persistent swallowing problems or indigestion, while a persisting loss of appetite is another red flag.

7. Hoarse voice or coughing

Throat or lung cancers can cause a hoarse voice or a cough, so if these symptoms persist, people are recommended to see a doctor. Breathlessness should also be checked out.

8. Tiredness

Some cancer can lead to fatigue. Getty Images

Many factors can cause fatigue, including a poor diet or stress, but various types of cancer can, similarly, lead to tiredness because they begin in the bone marrow and affect the body’s ability to produce oxygen-carrying red blood cells. Simply feeling unwell is another warning sign.

9. Unexplained pain

While many other factors may be at play, persistent pain could be a sign of cancer and is a reason to see a doctor.

10. Changes when going to the toilet

Blood in faeces or urine is cause to see a doctor, as are persistent stomach aches, diarrhoea or constipation, anal pain, loose, pale or greasy faeces, or a feeling that the bowels have not been emptied. Problems with urinating, such as being unable to, pain, or having to go suddenly or more often, should also be checked.

11. Bleeding

Aside from blood when going to the toilet, bleeding from the bottom, in vomit, while coughing or from the vagina outside of menstruation cycles should be investigated.

12. Breast changes

If a breast changes in size, shape or feel, or if there is redness pain or skin changes, it is worth receiving medical attention. If fluid, including bloodstained fluid, leaks, especially if a woman is not pregnant or breastfeeding, that may be another warning sign.

13. Mouth ulcers or sores

Many people experience mouth ulcers regularly but any ulcer or a red or white patch in the mouth that persists for three weeks or more should be looked at by a doctor.

Updated: August 17, 2022, 7:01 AM